One of the best and worst things about the Android platform is its support for diverse options for user interface (UI) and customisation. There’s no real one-way to do things with an OS as open-source as Android and the end result is that the user gets a huge range of options when it comes to personalising their device in both appearance and functionality.
However, with this freedom comes a price: fragmentation. It’s common for manufacturers to skin their own Android devices with custom UIs. This doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, until you realise that every time Google releases a new Android update the user has to wait for their manufacturer to make it work with their specific device and the niggling specifics of manufacturer-made UIs change from phone to phone. This can mean waits of months when updating to a new Android OS, if an update ever comes at all.
Google has been desperately trying to fix the solution since Android’s inception. Most recently the Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) update sought to fix fragmentation through some minor restrictions placed on developers as to how they integrated their modifications on the back-end. This wouldn’t mean too much difference for the user, but devs would be forced make changes using similar methods, meaning that adapting to future Android OSes would be easier for them.
Unfortunately, as we’ve seen with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, this idea was far from flawless. It’s true that we’ve seen a slightly faster adoption of Android 4.1 in top-end smartphones than we might otherwise have seen, but the results have been hardly exemplary.
The new idea we’re hearing around the web is that Google plans to combat these customisation issues by creating more options for customisation, rather than less.
Android 4.2 will reportedly introduce a Customization Center to act like a HUB for tweaks and personalisations. Things like ringtones, wallpapers, templates etc will all be available through this one interface.
Where the anti-fragmentation approach really kicks in is the new UI options. Users will purportedly be able to choose between their manufacturer’s UI and the stock-standard Android UI provided by Google, currently found almost exclusively on Nexus devices. This means that all users will be able to download a new version of Android as soon as it is released by switching to the standard UI, rather than only Nexus owners seeing that benefit.
Using this option, the manufacturer’s UI would no longer be an option until the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) got around to updating its UI and releasing it as a download. This might be unappealing to anyone who prefers their OEM’s UI over the stock Android experience, but at least the option for updating would be there.
As an added bonus, where manufacturers once had little incentive to update their devices in a timely fashion, as it encouraged users to buy new hardware instead of downloading a software fix, it should now be a bit more of a problem. If an OEM wants to keep the experience for its own smartphones unique and different to the competition, then extra steps will have to be taken in assuring UI updates are pushed out as quickly as possible.
This might prove to be an ingenious and elegant solution to Android’s biggest problem. Not only does this tackle the issue of fragmentation, but it also builds on one of Android’s biggest selling points; customisation and personalisation.
We definitely hope that this story finishes with the happy ending we’re hoping for, but it seems like every time Google sounds like it’s dealt a blow to fragmentation it falls well short of the mark. For now we’ll remain cautiously optimistic and hope this Customization Center turns out to be everything Google wishes for.