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As stock Android spreads, is it time for Android manufacturer skins to die?

Nokia 9 hands-on review
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Everyone loves vanilla ice cream. Do we really need chocolate or raspberry anymore? You can always throw some fudge in there, add a few sprinkles, customize your vanilla for the look and taste you want, right?

Stock Android is the vanilla of the smartphone world, which makes manufacturer skins that sit atop it, like Samsung’s One UI or LG’s UX, the other flavors. There are some strong arguments in favor of stock Android on every device, but there are also some compelling reasons to keep manufacturer skins. It’s a complicated issue.

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What is stock Android and how has it changed?

Before we get into this, let’s pause to define what we’re talking about. Stock Android is the open source version of the operating system developed by Google and it’s the simplest, most barebones version of Android. There are no superfluous apps or extra settings, and it looks distinctly plain; you might even say a little dull. That’s why even Google adds some extra sprinkles on top in its Pixel phones.

People tend to think of Google’s Pixel line and the Nexus line before it as stock Android, but Google’s vision of Android actually split from the open source project years ago. Google replaces some stock apps, loads its own launcher, and ignores things like MicroSD card support. Arguing over the semantics may be a waste of time, because Google’s Android is still a lot closer to stock than Samsung’s skin, and it has come to be what people generally mean when they say stock Android.

The Android mobile operating system is into its second decade and it has evolved a great deal. Google diverged when it started breaking apps out of Android to update them separately, allowing it to push updates out onto every phone with that app. This is one of the most fundamental differences between Android and iOS – Google pushes out big updates to its major apps year-round which would be listed as major feature bumps in the annual iOS update, but I digress.

Early versions of stock Android were lacking in features and style. Android pioneers like HTC added real value with their user interfaces. They looked better, offered useful customization options, and often added features that people wanted. Over the years stock Android has assimilated the best ideas from manufacturers into the core operating system, whether it was adding additional home screens, split screen, or the forthcoming dark mode.

Google has been happy to take some of the best ideas from manufacturer skins; ideas that have already been tested with the public. Often those manufacturers took the ideas from popular Android apps. This has served as an evolutionary mechanism that has continually improved the operating system. Generally, only the cream of the crop, with plenty of positive user feedback, has made it all the way into stock Android.

The problems with manufacturer skins

While manufacturer skins have helped improve Android over the years, they also present certain problems. They slow down software updates, they use system resources and space, and they often come bundled with bloatware that can’t be removed.

If you can’t improve on what Google is offering, then why add your own software?

The issue of Android fragmentation goes beyond the lack of a universal look and feel. Many manufacturers drag their feet when it comes time to update the software, because they have to integrate it with their own skins, push it through testing, and then send it out – a process that often takes months. This has caused security issues, which the Android development team has worked hard to curtail. Not only do Android phone owners have to wait for the latest features, they may also lack the latest security patches, leaving their devices vulnerable to attack.

Attempts to get manufacturers to speed up their software update process have had limited success, especially in the midrange and budget market where phones typically get very few updates after release. Google needed another strategy, so it diverged from stock Android by breaking out core features into app updates and separating security updates from Android version and feature updates. If phones can get the latest features and security patches without manufacturers having to push software updates, then the problem may be solved. We’re not there yet, but if Google can crack this, then one of the strongest arguments against manufacturer skins may melt away.

Another issue that people have traditionally had with manufacturer skins is performance. Samsung’s much-maligned TouchWiz interface was frequently criticized for being laggy. It has taken Samsung years to turn that around, but it has deep pockets. Many manufacturers with less cash have struggled to craft good software and the question is: if you can’t improve on what Google is offering, why add your own software? This issue has also been somewhat masked because hardware has improved so dramatically, and processing power has soared to new heights.

Samsung Galaxy s10e hands-on

Still, it seems that many manufacturers have seen the light and are cutting back on their additions. The general trend seems to be toward stock Android. Looking beyond Google’s Pixels, you can pick up a phone from Motorola, ZTE, Asus, or Nokia today and you’ll find stock Android or something very close to it. Oxygen OS on OnePlus phones isn’t miles away. Even Sony sticks closer to stock than ever in its most recent devices.

Naturally, there are exceptions and the top two just happen to sell more phones than everyone else combined: Samsung and Huawei.

Variety is the spice of life

Like many tech journalists, I have been singing the praises of Google’s Android for years. My phone changes day-to-day, and I frequently carry two or more, but the one that always stays in my pocket right now is the Pixel 3. I find Huawei’s EMUI too busy and not to my taste, like rum raisin. Samsung’s versions of apps are inferior to Google’s for me, but I’m aware a lot of this is down to personal taste. It also wasn’t always the case. In the early days of Android, HTC’s Sense offered the best experience and Samsung has offered some truly useful extras over the years.

There’s no reason that manufacturer skins and stock Android can’t peacefully coexist.

People don’t just stick with Samsung’s Galaxy phones year after year because they know how everything works, it’s more than that. Brand loyalty, the wider ecosystem of devices, and the unique features Samsung offers all factor in.

It’s natural for big brands to want to stamp their own identity on their devices. A glance at what is happening with Huawei now highlights one of the reasons why it’s important for manufacturers to sustain a distinct identity and their own apps. What if Google is forced (or decides) to pull the plug on you?

Galaxy S10 Plus vs. Pixel 3 XL
The Pixel 3 XL and Galaxy S10 Plus Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

The variety that Android has always offered and the option to customize and tinker has been a big part of its success and it still matters. It gives birth to new features and it offers us enormous choice. No one, including Google, really wants an iOS-style uniformity. But if manufacturers are going to continue to make skins, then there are some things that need to be addressed.

Living in harmony

There’s no reason that manufacturer skins and stock Android can’t peacefully coexist. We just need to fix some underlying issues.

Choice has always been at the heart of what makes Android so good.

Bloatware is one of the biggest, but it’s also one of the easiest to fix. Manufacturers may want to push their own versions of apps, but Android has always allowed you to choose your defaults. The real problem with bloatware is not that it ships on your phone, but that you can’t remove it. If manufacturers won’t stop shipping with bloatware, they should at least offer the option to uninstall it — not just disable apps — so people can free up the storage space, and sometimes processing power, that bloatware claims.

Software updates must be pushed out quickly. As we’ve discussed, Google is working on circumventing manufacturers here, but in the meantime, I wish they would speed up software updates. Sony, OnePlus, and Nokia (HMD Global) have shown it’s perfectly possible to push updates out swiftly, even if you have a manufacturer skin. Samsung, Huawei, and others should be doing better.

Sony Xperia 10 Plus
The Sony Xperia 10 Plus Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

With budget and even some midrange phones where manufacturers don’t want to keep spending to extend support, they should adopt Android One, which guarantees two years of Android version updates and three years of security updates. People shouldn’t be at risk simply because they can’t afford a flagship, it’s a terrible way to treat your customers.

As good as vanilla is, sometimes you want mint choc chip or raspberry ripple. Choice has always been at the heart of why Android is good. At the risk of taking this analogy too far, if it was an option, I’d take Google’s vanilla ice cream with Samsung’s chocolate-coated waffle cone, because Google’s Android on a Galaxy S10 Plus would be very hard to beat.

While there may be a trend towards stock Android in some sections of the market, I don’t think we’ll see the death of manufacturer skins anytime soon. It would be nice if they were limited to removable apps and launchers, but companies like Samsung will never go for that. The need to maintain their own identity is understandable and they do add some value. Variety and innovation go hand-in-hand, and if only the problems I’ve raised could be addressed, manufacturer skins could continue to be a powerful positive for Android.

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