Taking a look back at the original user interface of Android 1.0, it offers a stark contrast to Google’s latest and greatest: Android 2.2 (Froyo) update.
With the constant rate of Android development going on at Google HQ, you’d be forgiven for not realising how many devices are still running the older versions of Android, with Google’s latest figures showing 50% of Android users still using either Android 1.5 or 1.6.
Many manufacturers have chosen to adopt their own user interface over Google’s stock offering, following the example of HTC and their well-received Sense UI. Motorola ship the vast majority of their phones with the ‘Blur’ overlay; HTC have been using Sense UI ever since they started shipping Android and Sony Ericsson ship a custom interface for their Xperia line-up.
Of course, this is the great thing about Android as a platform – after all, it’s open for a reason – but one rarely hears the word ‘fragmentation’ without ‘Android’ tagged alongside it. The custom user interfaces being employed by OEMs aren’t the only cause of this, but it’s certainly a fundamental reason.
Every time Google updates Android (and that’s pretty often), OEMs can’t simply push that update to all of their devices. They have to re-work sections of their user interface to ensure there are no bugs or unseen problems. With major updates, such as Android 2.x, the whole overlay may have to be adjusted and recoded in parts to ensure compatibility. By the time this has been accomplished, Google will have no doubt released a newer version, again leaving many users out in the cold – for example, HTC Desire owners are still waiting to be able to upgrade to Android 2.2.
So how can this be fixed? The Android team over at Google are hard at work on ‘Gingerbread’, the next major version of Android (3.0), and will no doubt want to beat the issue of fragmentation. What’s the best way to do this? A revamp of the Android user interface of course!
The problems in early versions of Android are long gone, with extra functionality added with each update. I’m currently using stock Android 2.2 after rooting my Nexus One, and it comes complete with social network integration, a great looking 3D gallery and a nice user interface. The music player is still in dire need of an upgrade, but that will undoubtedly come sooner rather than later with a future update.
With Google’s recent acquisitions including noticeable start-ups such as 3D desktop application, BumpTop, a lot of people are excited about what’s coming in Gingerbread. Some may argue that this innovation is due to the competition of custom interfaces, but the speed of innovation at Google is far superior to some manufacturers shipping devices with custom interfaces. This is painfully clear, with new devices arriving on the market with an old version of the Android OS. The Sony Ericsson Xperia X10, for example, is new on the market and ships with Android 1.6!
Although Google won’t restrict manufacturers from applying their own custom interfaces to Android, they can certainly make the UI more appealing. This will make it unattractive for OEMs to skin the interface, as it’ll add to their development costs and they’ll be taking features away from their device, not adding them.
Hopefully, Android ‘Gingerbread’ will mark a significant advance in Google’s efforts to reduce fragmentation, and bring more uniformity to the platform in the future so that they can then try and focus with various manufacturers on competing against the upcoming Apple iPhone 4.