Customization of Third Party Apps: Right or Wrong?
Aesthetics have been a major focal point of the latest updates to Android, and with Material Design bringing new guidelines, many developers jumped into the trend of grandiosely humble, mutely colorful and deeply flat applications. The result is a bunch of new skins that give the OS a more consistent look – or so they should. On paper, Material Design was going to be the unification of the ecosystem into a coherent and cohesive environment, but it fell flat on many of its ambitions regarding reach and homogeneity. There’s still many developers (big ones at that) which have no interest in adopting the new de-facto UI theme, and I think there’s a few reasons worth looking into as to why this is. But more importantly, I want to make a quick note onto how this might conflict with some of Android’s most revered virtues.
Applications like Facebook and Instagram are iconic to most users of any degree of experience. They are popular go-to solutions for very monopolist sectors of social media, and their supremacy is apparent in the fact that everyone knows what the apps look like. In part, the aesthetics they chose for their applications are the biggest telling signs. I am very sure many of you, like me, have innate curiosity for other people’s phones – from the hardware to what they are doing on it. It is not because of intrusiveness, I don’t think, but mostly because we are so fascinated by this technology. So I personally don’t feel bad when I find myself subtly glancing at someone’s phone to quickly gather the usual intel: what model, what carrier, and what software is displayed on the screen. And while riding public transport or walking university halls, the main culprits are easy to spot from a mile away due to their distinct hue tints: facebook, instagram, tinder, flappy bird…
Design is perhaps one of the most important aspects of an application’s user experience, and the overall presentation is definitely something that most OEMs put a lot of focus on… right? Well, probably not too much for most of them. We’ve already covered plenty of themed applications on our Portal in some shape or form, and there’s some really good reasons to check them out. Mainly, the fact that (as our developers often do) they fix the glaring design problems that many of these applications have. Take the case of Whatsapp MD, or Whatsapp Plus: the original IM application is perhaps the ugliest one that happens to be on the most phones worldwide, and Facebook’s inability to issue a facelift is something puzzling even to the most casual of users. The design of Whatsapp is simply terrible by almost every measurement in comparison to the best exponents of today – especially with the incursion of Material Design.
Yet, at the same time, we see what I think are very contradictory philosophies: on one hand, the developers know that a huge re-design that is not guaranteed to be better than the previous one will undoubtedly drive some customers away, especially if the updated app does not hold a monopoly over its turf. But at then you see that radically straying from the core design principles of the original product – if previously successful – could also hurt the image of the brand, or the consistency of the application. If the service expands across multiple platforms (and most today do), then there’s also the fact that to remain cohesive, all iterations must be updated at once or within a short time, with a similar or identical design language if they wish to keep consistency. Further more, some developers refuse to adopt Material Design to further differentiate themselves, and the ones that do opt in can easily misinterpret the guidelines or pull off a lazy job and ruin what could have been a better user experience.
The future of app design updates is, then, rather unpredictable. How many UI iterations has Facebook seen on both PC and Mobile? How many have been better, and how many have been worse than before? Plenty, of course, yet I can’t say that they are that close to nailing it (especially on the navigation aspect). I am not fond of Facebook anyway, but I recently tried out XDA Senior Member Xperiaviet252‘s Facebook Color themed apps (featured here) of which there are many options to choose from, and was left thinking about whether this should be something not just popular, but widely embraced.
Modding applications to make them look or behave differently is nothing new to XDA, and theming just about anything is a big hobby around these circles. And I personally love some of the options. I was an user of Whatsapp MD before the big controversy surrounding Whatsapp banning the users that used forked or skinned apps, which we reported earlier to point out their major contradictions. This marked a clear trend from Facebook in particular that makes me scared of the future that could await Xperiaviet252’s themed app, if it gets big: they don’t like these forks.
Now, luckily Facebook isn’t the only developer out there (I don’t want to imagine such a world…) and many don’t necessarily care about their applications being modded or forked. Some services can provide very flexible APIs to build applications with features directly built upon it, for further alternatives or feature integration. But then there’s the ones we see in the wild like Facebook that crack down on user-modifications, even though sometimes it doesn’t really affect their core service directly. Does it affect them at all, though? Most likely, because their hue and tint, their logos, and sometimes their interface structure or navigation, are some of the telling points of their service. If I was riding the subway browsing Facebook with the previously mentioned mod, most people wouldn’t realise it’s Facebook from a simple glance. Facebook doesn’t just rely on a lot people using Facebook, but also on the idea that a lot of people use it; and seeing more of the blue Facebook UI on other pedestrian phones validates’ this notion of the service on consumer minds, to some degree.
So design is not simply about providing good aesthetics, but an identity that is easily digestible – something most here already noticed and that designers should know by heart. Having these forks around also takes away from the credibility of professionalism of these companies, as Whatsapp Plus and Whatsapp MD did. If you were to check the comments and testimonies of its users, you’d notice just how much everyone hated the old Whatsapp. The hilarious part is that these single developers can output something more beautiful and consistent than what this billionaire company could, while at the same time gaining the empathy that nobody in their sane mind has for Facebook and the way they run things.
Openness? Customization? Tweaking?
Those three words are what Android is all about (for us, at least), and it’s clear that many simply don’t want their product to undergo such treatments. It is entirely in their power and authority to be against it, mind you, as long as they hold intellectual property rights or copyright. But in the legal sense, it’s probably not as easy for them to shut down these services, especially given that the perpetrators could be anonymous, or located in regions of the world where the Law for these matters isn’t as consistent. This is a reason as to why they haven’t been taking people to court over this silliness. So what do they have left to do? Cease and Desist letters.
The Android ecosystem shouldn’t always be a “small users & devs vs. the big boys” kind of civil war, but the conflicts do spring often. The heart of the matter is that, if everyone – both big and small – would focus on the user and not just what the user wants but most importantly deserves (in regard to treatment as well), then we wouldn’t have these kinds of problems in the first place. While Android is known for being able to let you tweak to your hearts’ content, the business model of these companies that want a strong rigid brand name and identity collides head on with it. It wouldn’t be as bad if the practice of modifying their code wasn’t looked down upon, but when it’s strictly forbidden on sub-par experiences that need fixing, by intimidation and bullying as seen with Whatsapp we enter into a rather nasty conflict.
There’s something oddly satisfying and curious about seeing a very familiar application undergo a new color scheme, or font, or whatever you decide to change. Sometimes it can result in fascination and truly enhance the experience you were unknowingly looking for. Trying out new apps doesn’t hurt, and neither does trying new looks of new apps. But as of now it’s a little taboo to want a green Facebook or a decent Whatsapp, so if you want to get into it as an user or dev you might be in danger of a ban or letter. But hey, as Matias Duarte would say regarding app design: HOLO*.
*hideous only lives once
Do you use themed applications? Do you think it is OK to do so? Sound off below!