The Android UI Dilemma: Unify or Differentiate?
[The UI of Android mobile devices is at the epicenter of a conflict between Google and the OEM struggle for differentiation. Guest author Ben Hookway analyses why Google’s UI strategy will be paramount to its proliferation as Android moves to multiple screens]
The topic of User Interfaces always solicits strong views. It’s a bit like TV – everyone is an expert on it because everyone uses it. Those who have been in the mobile industry a while have seen the tide of UI control flow in and out.
In 2002 operators are demanding custom UIs from handset OEMs in the form of Vodafone Live and Orange SPV. Naturally, most OEMs resist, trying to capture consumer loyalty to the handset, not the network.
Three years on, and OEMs are opting to customizing Windows Mobile and Symbian powered handsets rather than creating all-out new UIs. At the same time, network operators are seeing poor returns from UI customization and are dissolving their teams.
With the iPhone big bang in 2007, the UI is back to being the hottest topic in mobile. Post iPhone, almost all tier-1 OEMs are developing their own UI layers, namely HTC Sense, Motorola Blur, Sony Ericsson Rachael, Samsung TouchWiz and LG S-Class. In parallel, network operators are building bigger teams to attempt more control over the UI again; Vodafone, Orange and T-Mobile have 100+ person teams working on â€˜signature’ applications and UI definition, while the trend seems to have spilled over to the other side of the Atlantic with Verizon and AT&T opening up multi-million software development centers. Behind the scenes there is also a good deal of demand for UI technology and expertise such as TAT’s Cascades and Mentor’s Inflexion products.
The latest development in the UI saga is the rumoured tighter control being exerted by Google on the Gingerbread release of Android. The aim of this appears to be to reduce API fragmentation issues caused by custom OEM UIs and deliver a more consistent UI brand across different manufacturer devices.
This is not going to go down well with Google’s partners. There is a core commercial conflict on how Google wants to take Android forward. Google wants an Apple-like level of control over the device appearance with their Android handset compliance definition encompassing hardware features, software performance, and service bundling (see the recently published CTS and CDD documents).
However the Apple and Google business models could not be more different.
– Apple controls the semiconductor, hardware, and software make-up of the iPhone all the way to ad services, branding and retail pricing, whereas Google only controls the software.
– Apple makes its own devices (at a rate of 1 new model per year), whereas Google relies on partner OEMs to produce 100s of new models per year.
– Apple spends big advertising dollars in communicating a consistent brand experience across products, while Google co-markets its Experience handsets but puts no money (or effort) in partner handsets.
Most importantly, unlike Apple, Google relies on OEM partners to bring these devices to market.
In the OEM world of survival of the fittest and thinning margins, there are two differentiating factors: price and UI. Yet, both of these factors are being constrained; price is continually declining (standing at 100 GBP unsubsidized for Android handsets) thanks to ODMs willing to sacrifice margins; and the UI is apparently being locked down by Google in the Gingerbread release.
The economic model of handset OEMs necessitates UI differentiation and Google is taking that away. For Google to expect Apple-like control on a fundamentally different business model is just unrealistic.
And it’s only getting worse.
Battling across 4 screens
The next battle (if we are not already in it) is going to be about platforms for your whole life – not just your mobile, TV, PC in isolation, but as one joined-up world; Experience Ecosystems made up of multiple screens where experience can easily roam from one screen to the next.
Browsers are already bridging the gap across laptops, phones, tablets TVs and cars, while the â€˜app’ paradigm is taking this further.
To have mobile, TV and PC seamlessly join up requires consistency of the user experience. Apple is the obvious role model here. The Mac, iPhone, iPad, all use similar gestures and interactions, come with similar application design guidelines and are connected to the same centralized service cloud of iTunes and MobileMe. Apple is again the role model in creating the first Experience Ecosystem.
In the Android camp, Google recently announced Google TV. A consistent user experience across mobile and TV is going to be not just important but paramount. Don’t be surprised to see mobile handset OEMs to extend use of Android to other consumer electronics from picture frames and DECT phones to set-top boxes and hi-fis.
But how is Google going to achieve this consistency without an Apple-like hardware control? Hardware control gives you complete user experience consistency in terms of UI responsiveness, screen quality and more. In the next release of Android (Gingerbread) the UI is apparently going to be more locked down; an attempt by Google to gain more control without resorting to hardware manufacturing.
Imagine browsing content on your BrandX Android based tablet and then synching it to your BrandX TV set for viewing over the air. Consistency of experience between the 2 devices will be key. The web browser provides this consistency of interaction and is the best lowest-common denominator right now. But the app phenomenon is outperforming the web by leveraging on location, micropayments, personal user information and intuitve discovery. As one of the main engines behind the app phenomenon, Android could well be powering the battle of the smart living room.
The industry tension over the UI customization of Android is not going to go away anytime soon – rather its going to amplify as more and more manufacturers leverage Android in creating smart, connected and differentiated consumer electronics devices.
OEMs need to plan for their differentiated UI to span multiple devices. Having a familiar experience across devices can be a key driver of brand loyalty and is strategically important to each OEM in creating their own Experience Ecosystem. Competitive pressures make this a key pillar of differentiation that cannot be wasted. It cannot be done half-heartedly. There need to be clear benefits to consumers and clear continuity across as many devices as possible. But the benefits of the larger Android community also need to be maintained, for example having unrestricted access to the Android Market and consistent consumer marketing as to the differentiation offered by the OS itself.
Google needs to accept that UI differentiation is a strategic requirement for its partners, offer alternative differentiation strategies or fundamentally change how it brings Android to market.
Question is, does Google see this as a challenge to the proliferation of Android, and if so, what will they do about it?
[Ben Hookway is the CEO of Vidiactive, a company bringing web video to TV, using an open and multi-device approach. He consults on user experience technology and trends, having been founder and CEO of Next Device, which was acquired by Mentor Graphics. Get in touch with Ben: ben.hookway (at) vidiactive.com]