Customization, OEMs & Brand Recognition: An Unnecessary Conflict

Customization, OEMs & Brand Recognition: An Unnecessary Conflict

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Android is about customization— particularly to Android enthusiasts and XDA users. The ability to tweak and tailor your device to match exactly how you want to use it is one of the major features of the OS that draws users to it. 

And that’s probably why you’re here at XDA— you love customization, and this is the place to find the latest ROMs, kernels, and software tweaks to play with and make devices better.

Even though customization is awesome, some feel that when OEM’s do it with their Android “skins”, it takes away some of this customization ability from the user, forcing them to stay within a confine that detracts from the reason they were attracted to Android in the first place. And we’re not just talking about looks— OEM tinkering goes much further than the surface, sometimes changing uniform functionality so much that it’s difficult for a casual user to wrap their head around the idea that yes, this is still Android.

This customer’s Android experience caused him to recognize Samsung as the Android phone, while unintentionally ignoring all the other possibilities

To add onto that point, OEMs interfering with Android too much can causes issues with brand recognition. Just the other day, I was having a very familiar conversation with a customer about what kind of phone they wanted. They were hovering between Apple or Android, and kept going back and forth between the iPhone and Samsung displays.

I noticed that they were missing out on looking at all the other Android phones, so I pointed out that if they were interested in Android, there are tons of options for devices, and showed him other Android phones — essentially the rest of the displays. Their response was, “oh, I didn’t realize all these were Android phones too.” And as he swiped between screens on different phones,  “but why do they look so different?

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Because they fit different needs!

This customer’s Android experience caused him to recognize Samsung as the Android phone, while unintentionally ignoring all the other possibilities. It happens so often that now “pure Android” is incorporated into the sales pitch when selling something like a Nexus, or even Motorola (“it’s close to being pure Android!”) as a feature that somehow makes it better than its peers.

It becomes a problem when someone has difficulty recognizing that yes, this Samsung phone and this LG phone are actually both Android. But there has to be a happy medium somewhere. OEMs offer innovation, and in some cases Google ends up implementing those innovations into Android in future updates. For example, one could say that Motorola was mostly responsible for always-on Google Now, since they implemented their “Ok Google” voice-assistant feature with their Moto X 2013 smartphone. Motorola was also responsible for introducing the first Android smartphone with a fingerprint scanner, the Motorola Atrix.  Now, always-on Google Now is built into Lollipop, and fingerprint scanner technology is built into Marshmallow. Samsung came up with Multi-window, which was almost implemented into Marshmallow.

While some of these “borrowed” features are not available on every single device by default, OEMs can choose to take advantage of them. Essentially, if a company wants to use one of these features, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, because an API for it already exists within Android. So, there’s no need to be stuffing in code just to get the hardware features that OEMs want to work, as it’s already there.

Many OEMs are now looking to offer stock-like ROMs for their devices, from Sony’s new Xperia concept to Oppo’s AOSP ROM

While it is important for OEMs to be able to take Android and mold it so that it is unique to their product (“be together, not the same”) it is equally important that the OEM ‘innovation’ doesn’t adversely affect the Android experience, causing people to shy away and hail phones running pure Android as the holy grail. Perhaps the solution is to still offer features that differentiate your product, but at the same time, realize that you don’t want people to not buy your phone simply because it’s forcing them into your customizations, not theirs — which is not what Android is about. Lots of time and money goes into Samsung’s Touchwiz, so why not have it on your phone but scaled back some more (which they have slowly been doing over the years anyway) or have it available as a powerful software alternative instead, giving the user the ability to remove it or its features, or at the very least change them if they want to. This way, users can appreciate the brand’s customizations without it being forced.

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A dream that came true at the Big Android Barbecue 2015.

Of course, users can always choose to flash ROMs, root and remove bloatware and/or use Xposed, or even delve into something like dual-booting if it suits them and their device supports it. While all that is great, and a testament to the openness and versatility of Android as an operating system, it unfortunately doesn’t help with brand recognition. Many OEMs are now looking to offer stock-like ROMs for their devices, from Sony’s new Xperia concept to Oppo’s AOSP ROM; but sadly, it’s too small and unadvertised of a movement. And even then, some users and even super-star developers (as shown below) like some of the software additions. So how can OEMs sell their own brand while still selling Android?

Perhaps the answer lies with having the perfect combination of excellent hardware and non-invasive, but useful software features (and awesome enough so Google may implement them into future Android versions). With Android Wear, Google controls firmware updates and OEM customization are limited. So much so, that as another XDA article mentions, some OEMS such as Huawei want Android Wear to be a more open platform to allow for more OEM innovation, since Wear is still in its early stages. However, Android Wear boasts timely updates, even if sometimes they aren’t quite life-changing.  In today’s Android context, though, this is one of the main issues that Android phones face — especially amidst vulnerabilities.

It would be nice to have the best of both worlds: timely updates and the ability for OEMs to innovate without compromising the Android name nor their brand as well. At the end of the day though, Android is about customization, and every individual makes their own experience. That experience shouldn’t be compromised by the brand of phone you choose.