Opinion: The Problem with Default Launchers and Why OEMs Should Take Pointers from Alternatives like Nova
On my desk, I have a multitude of devices from different manufacturers, with different price tags and some running vastly different software. They all have one thing in common, and that’s their homescreen setup.
The homescreen is undoubtedly one of the most essential components of the Android experience; from the most casual of users to the most knowledgeable tinkerers, we all interact with it daily and almost all Android users customize it to some degree — even if it’s something as simple as ordering the icons around. Android’s approach to software has enabled both OEMs and clever app developers to come up with all sorts of alternatives to the Android homescreen, too, and popular launchers like Nova can allow for radical, unconventional setups thanks to a wealth of customization options. Launchers are the window to our applications, and even Google seems to increasingly focus on the launcher as a means to get somewhere: as Allo developer Justin Uberti said “[the] homescreen removed the need for all in one apps (…) [its] easier to navigate between apps than within them”. They’ve also been improving the Pixel launcher and introducing launcher shortcuts on Android Nougat — these leverage the launcher to further bypass barriers in order to get to a particular app’s activity; and, as shown with Allo, Google is moving away from multi-purpose apps and instead focusing on providing more applications better suited to doing one thing efficiently (at least in theory)… the launcher and stronger multi-tasking allow this design strategy to succeed.
So what’s wrong with all those stock launchers that I replaced? All of my Android devices eventually swap the launcher precisely because I hold that UX component in such high-regard — it’s not to say that the launchers that OEMs design and include as default on their devices are bad (many of them are), but rather that I prefer a cohesive, smooth launcher with the features that I need and without the clutter I don’t care for. Given you are reading this on XDA of all places, chances are you agree with me, as we aren’t strangers to custom launchers. What’s worse, I can see that launchers are an important focus point for many, many OEMs — chances are that, whenever you upgrade your phone to a new flagship by the same manufacturer, the launcher will have “improved” as well. OEMs are constantly trying to add features to their launchers, or redesign their icon packs and widget styles; it can be argued that much of this is merely to keep the experience fresh, but I also believe that manufacturers are, in fact, trying to improve their devices’ user interface and its functionality to gain a competitive advantage.
A Contested Battleground
An example I like to bring up is HTC — while the M9 brought better theming and a widget to more-intelligently organize your apps based on context, it was the HTC 10 that focused heavily on offer an alternative but nevertheless heavily-marketed new launcher experience: Freestyle homescreen. This was a set of colorful and customizable backgrounds with icon packs that matched the background, as to make them “part” of the scene to mask the fact that you were actually looking at icons and widgets. Moreover, Freestyle allowed you to put these icons whenever you pleased and without being confined to rigid grids; HTC even took it a step further by allowing users to create and share these themes, leading to a variety of alternatives including some inspired by popular movies and videogames. Alas, this feature was largely lauded by reviewers and many users either stuck with the traditional Sense launcher or, once more, opted for a third-party option.
And it’s perhaps the popularity of those third-party options that’s most revealing: there are several well-known and polished alternatives, some with tens of millions of downloads, and some like Nova Launcher even date back to Android’s days of growing pains. The popularity and success of Nova, Action Launcher and other usual suspects should be enough to suggest that launcher alternatives can be extremely successful, and the fact that tech giants like Microsoft and Facebook often feel the need to create more launchers further solidifies the homescreen as a key battleground for OEMs, software companies and independent app developers. The homescreen allows all of them to either market their products or integrate into other services – or an ecosystem – with ease, but it’s OEMs who ultimately hold the advantage, an advantage that is strongest with the least-involved or less-savvy Android users:
It’s likely that an enormous subset of smartphone users just never bother to change their launcher, or even their stock wallpaper for that matter. In the words of Brandon Miniman, co-founder of the popular launcher Themer, “How do you explain to your mom that an Android phone can change launchers? And that you can put widgets on it, or adjust animations… she’ll get lost!”. Themer itself tried to address many of those problems by offering a one-tap approach to homescreen theming, allowing you to select from a multitude of beautiful homescreens created by users. In many ways, Themer was like the HTC’s Freestyle approach, but both found themselves facing an important obstacle.
“People don’t like to change their homescreen,” Brandon Miniman says, “it’s nice from afar to see how cool it can be, but people rarely want change”. A problem he recognized was the friction created in the user experience by selection a largely pre-determined, often-rigid themed homescreen with the user’s favorite applications disparately distributed all over the place. Sometimes, the homescreen is best when it’s personal and tuned to the user’s liking, or when it allows the user to slowly and progressively get to know and learn where everything is. While popular launchers have millions of downloads, Android runs on billions of devices, and here lies the advantage OEMs have, and a prime incentive driving so many of their launcher UX decisions.
The left-most homescreen is an interesting example of a place where OEMs have attempted to bring their own exclusive features and services in the past couple of years. For the most part, their implementations don’t hold up to that of the Google Now Launcher or a user-customized screen with finely-tuned widgets. There are two examples that I think encapsulate my views on these panels as implemented by OEMs… First we have TouchWiz’s infamous Flipboard integration, which Samsung hasn’t managed to optimize after more than a year — it’s a laggy mess that makes for a frustrating experience, and adds a service that is arguably best relegated to an app. Another example is the OnePlus 3’s “Shelf” feature: first introduced with the OnePlus 2, this left-most homescreen shows you the weather, your most recent/used applications, personal notes and you can add a few widgets as well…
For the most part, all of this functionality is done better with user implementations — and whereas Samsung’s target demographic would likely be less prone (proportionally speaking) to manually implement a better solution to Flipboard, OnePlus’ largely-savvier userbase likely can add widgets that do the job better, or install a Launcher that also displays the same application shortcuts, etc. Both Samsung and OnePlus have continuously improved their launcher, and while I’d argue Oxygen OS’ launcher is miles ahead of Samsung’s and even a keeper, it still shows that there is room to improve in the launcher.
OEMs have been experimenting with their launchers quite a bit in the past couple of years, from offering smart widgets and theme engines to removing the app drawer — a move that was met with backlash by much of the enthusiast community, even if the end result is not that bad. For all their efforts, I have yet to see a launcher that’s compelling enough to make me not switch it out after the review period has ended. Sometimes, I personally cannot last that long — Chinese phones, in particular, tend to displease those who always long for a Stock Android experience. Some manufacturers deserve credit for their efforts: OnePlus, for example, offers a largely-stock launcher with icon packs; LG has typically allowed for all sorts of customizations as well, from animations to icons/themes; Motorola has kept things largely stock and simple. In fact, I find myself going back to simpler homescreens more often than complicated setups, and I believe this is testament to the efficiency of the traditional homescreen. The typical 4 to 5 icon wide setup with an app drawer is a staple of Android, and I think it’s ultimately simpler than what Themer or other experimental launchers offer. The latter are bound to fit perfectly with many users, but the power of a simple, no frills but also flexible homescreen is undeniable.
Stock or Not?
On one hand, we see OEMs constantly build upon their stock launchers with each flagship iteration; I believe this is for offering a specific, unique experience tied to the manufacturer’s services or ecosystem as much as it is a way to continuously improve upon an experience that is often unsatisfactory; sub-par performance, divisive aesthetics, a lack of customization or peddling of hardly useful features are some of the reasons why people opt for third party launchers. Moreover, these alternatives are not only for tinkerers and customization fiends — the Google Now and Pixel Launcher, for example, are rather inflexible by default and still manage to achieve a decent level of popularity and positive feedback. Nova Launcher, Action Launcher, and Google’s solutions have thrived whereas some of the more experimental alternatives like Themer or Microsoft’s Arrow haven’t — either in terms of net downloads or lasting fanfare.
Phone makers could keep it simple and offer something akin to a Stock Android Launcher, or add the customization of something like Nova… the brilliance of this last option is that the casual user need not know or care about the extra settings, just like Nova or Action perform like a traditional homescreen if the user doesn’t fidget with the additional settings. At the end of the day, though, OEMs do want to offer us their take on Android, for better or worse, and this means their aesthetics and choice of icons and animations (or glass and blur, as we see lately) and whatever service they device to tack onto the leftmost screen. They have an advantage in which they will be the unconscious choice of large proportions of their users — either because they are complacent, they don’t know how to access alternatives (or that there are any at all), or because the process of setting up a new homescreen is too much of a hassle. This is an advantage that encourages them to improve their launcher experience, and iterate upon it with every release, even if they really don’t have anything worthwhile to tack onto it that cycle.
In my opinion, OEMs should carefully inspect the third-party launcher market to see what kind of features ultimately drive users to those alternatives, and what advantages they have over their stock offerings. It might be a wish falling on deaf ears, but I’ve seen some companies itch closer and closer to that Holy Grail of a built-in launcher, sometimes even turning around and backpedalling on some of the changes and progress they’ve made. This is, of course, my take on things, but I do think that there is a lot of potential and room for improvement in most of popular flagship’s stock homescreens. They could, for example, borrow Nova’s customization, Action Launcher’s accessibility/navigation features, and gestures or customization options that attract so many of us. They could very well pick and choose and, with their millionaire resources, outcompete the competition — other OEMs, software companies and independent app developers. This could very well be nothing more than a pipedream, but just like I long to see more phones running aesthetic and functionally-balanced user interfaces by default, I also think it’d be interesting to stick with a default launcher that further complements that UI, with no incentive to do otherwise. It’s not rare, after all, to see suggestions towards Galaxy or Huawei phone users regarding Nova launcher or other options to mask the meddling of the phonemakers upon Android. OEMs have many incentives to nail a great launcher, and they are clearly altering theirs year after year… ideally, they’d take a long and hard look at their competition – particularly that on the Play Store – and incorporate so much of what makes Nova and Action Launchers such legendary applications among enthusiasts.
What do you think of OEM Launchers? Do you often look for an alternative? Let us know in the comments below!