Huawei has a proprietary interface called EMUI for Emotion UI

While most users don’t mind so much about the kind of Android skin* used by handset makers, many people wonder why phone makers don’t keep Google’s default Android skin (user interface).

Although commonly called “skins,” some proprietary Android versions used by OEMs vary greatly depending on how “deep” into Android the modifications are made. Some changes are cosmetic in nature while others go much deeper into the operating system. Regardless, here are the reasons:

*Android “skins” are also called “themes.” They are distributed in app called “launchers,” because other apps are launched from them.

1/ Differentiation

The LG G3 introduced a very simplified UI in HiDPI

The LG G3 introduced a very simplified UI in HiDPI

Being “different” is the most important reason for phone makers to have a proprietary user interface. This is particularly critical when companies don’t want to compete only based on hardware technicalities. To be fair, hardware quality does have a profound impact in key areas such as camera, quality, display and industrial design. However, user interface and user experience aren’t proportionally better depending on the quality of the hardware.

Since most phones are priced reasonably, if not outright cheaply, hardware alone simply cannot be the main preoccupation for OEMs. Manufacturers try to identify and isolate weaknesses in the stock OS or optimize for specific use cases. From there a specific interface is tailored to gain an edge – or so is the plan.

Maintaining a custom skin is an expensive proposition for the phone builder, and it puts a major strain on the OEM’s engineering resources, so this decision should never be taken lightly.

2/ User retention

Once an OEM has convinced a customer to buy a phone, the aim is to repeat a sale down the road. Humans are creatures of habits, and many people would rather not learn a new interface. This offers phone makers a good chance of “retaining” customers that were acquired previously, possibly at great cost (of marketing). If one’s Android skin is sufficiently “sticky” and gets people to ask for it, it’s the holy grail for a device maker.

There are several ways to go at it, but large OEMs use their distribution power (Samsung, LG, Huawei, etc.) and pretty much provide quality hardware that makes it worth for the user to either like or tolerate the skin. Smaller players like OnePlus and Meizu can try adding value by asking users what UI they want, and by preloading fewer applications by default (aka bloatware).

The goal is to have people desire one’s custom skin to factor it in the purchase decision.

3/ Include additional services

The Samsung Touchwiz interface powers most of Samsung's Android phones

The Samsung Touchwiz interface powers most of Samsung’s Android phones

A custom Android skin often comes along with exclusive apps. This is a good opportunity for OEMs to include services that they hope will make their platform “sticky.”

For example, you may like their specific version of mobile payments, or maybe you used their app store and now have bought a bunch of apps and games that you want to access in the future. Maybe you are using their cloud services to store some data — all of this could be lost or harder to access if you were to buy a phone from another brand.

Connecting a skin or handset with proprietary (online) services is another holy grail for any device maker. Apple is probably the most successful at that game, followed by Google, although Google has a small share in hardware, it does control the operating system. And that’s the key: who controls the OS is better able to control “what” is promoted along with it. The next best thing after the OS is the Android skin and preloaded apps…

Large OEMs have their set of services as well. Samsung, for instance, has backups, payments, music and apps stores.

4/ Push the envelope

Multi-tasking was introduced to Android via a custom Skin (here, Samsung Touchwiz in 2012)

Multi-tasking was introduced to Android via a custom Skin (here, Samsung Touchwiz in 2012)

Finally, having a customized OS does allow device makers to add features originally not supported by the OS “out of the box.” Fingerprints, eye scanners and multi-window are simple examples of features that came from an OEM first, then were adopted by the Operating System later. Integrated or supplemental security layers could also be lumped in this proprietary aspect of the OS customization.

Typically, large manufacturers are the ones to build, integrate and promote these first. Others who don’t have the capacity to do it are better off waiting for the OS to integrate these things. The key aspect here is innovation and time to market.

5/ Skins should not be a dramatic topic

When reading reviews and forums, there are sometimes very heated debate on this topic. In reality, most skins are quite usable now, and it’s rare to see something extremely bad. It’s true that back in the early Android days, there were some Android skins that would be considered to be “fails”, but stock Android now sets the bar very high, and that motivates OEMs to go higher, or suffer the consequences.

There are also sensible reasons to have some proprietary code and services if they are innovating. I personally dispute the idea of systematically changing the app icons because it brings no value at all — although technically apps are different (A Calendar app on a phone isn’t the same as another), and there are licensing issues to deal with. As a user, it’s weird.

Finally, it’s possible to get rid of (some of) the cosmetic changes by installing another skin, whether it is the Google Now skin that gives a Nexus look to your interface or other good Android skins/themes available. It’s also possible to download and install a number of Google (or other) apps to replicate a familiar environment.

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