Even before HTC rowed back on its decision not to load-up Android Gingerbread onto its old-school Desire, there’d been no shortage of grumbling about what custom skins meant for Google’s all-conquering smartphone system.
HTC’s initial confession that, “…there isn’t enough memory to allow us both to bring Gingerbread and keep the HTC Sense experience on the HTC Desire,” was simply proof that manufacturers who use custom skins are more concerned with their own software than Google’s.
This latest flip-flop, and especially HTC’s original reasoning, should be ample reason for Google to go even further in tightening-up its open platform. Custom skins should be confined to the dustbin of history - not because some of them aren’t actually pretty neat, but because they are undoubtedly holding back upgrades and creating a tiered system where early adopters are soon frozen out.
Updates take ages thanks to custom skins and there are countless examples in Android’s short history: the Xperia X10 and Dell Streak to name but two. The Desire can now be added to that list.
The length of time it is taking manufacturers to get updates onto phones suggests a deep lack of forward planning on their part. On Google’s side, it needs to get early builds out quicker for testing, so users can get the latest features quickly.
Gingerbread was released in December 2010 and yet it is only on nine per cent of Android phones. Naturally, some older phones still dominate, but many should be able to run the new software by now.
Of course, this can be dismissed as an issue only for those who care deeply about smartphones and what they do. But it’s wider than that for Google. iOS 5 and Windows Phone Mango offer the kind of deep social integration custom skins do, but neither are allowed to be tampered with by third parties.
Android Ice Cream Sandwich looks arguably more advanced than either of those systems, and while its unified tablet and smartphone approach means it should stop custom skins in their tracks, it doubtless won’t.
Manufacturers want to, understandably, make their phones stand out against the increasingly large crowd and custom skins help them do that. Unfortunately, they cause update problems that dog Google and give fuel to Android’s critics. So, what to do? Google should be bold enough to say enough is enough.
The issue is that this flies in the face of everything Android stands for. Its popularity at the moment will also sate the Big G for now. But as irate HTC fans have shown, the failure to offer updates only leads to consumer fury and accusations that phones are being made for the very short term, rather than the length of a two-year contract.
Google needs to tackle this issue head on, because otherwise this one will run and run.