“What’s so special about it? There are no good photo editing effects and no beauty mode for the selfie camera! And I have to download Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter on it again!”
That was the rather plaintive complaint of an acquaintance who had invested in a Nexus device a few days ago. He said he had purchased it because everyone had assured him that it would run smoothly and came with “pure Android.” One day into using it, he was less than impressed. “Iss pe to kuchh hai ni nahin. Samsung aur Sony mien itna sab aata hai laga lagaya! (There is nothing on it. Samsung and Sony come with so many preinstalled apps)” he snapped. “Of course it will be smooth. There is nothing on it!”
And his is not an isolated case. We had a number of people contacting us and asking what is so special about “pure Android” and why it does not come with any freebies or more colorful wallpapers and effects when the original Moto G was released in India. “The fact is the consumer – the ‘normal’ guy or girl on the street – does not really worry that much about the version of Android on the phone, as long as he or she is reasonably sure it is new. Those bells and whistles and bloatware that you guys hate? They love that!” I remember a Lenovo executive telling me when I was discussing the new Vibe UI with him, and wondering why more companies did not go with pure Android, like Motorola did.
“YOU think it is bloatware, because you are monitoring storage all the time. You have the bandwidth and time to download apps and games. But the general user? They want a phone that comes loaded with everything – games, Facebook, Twitter, the works! Not everyone wants to spend money on a phone and THEN spend time downloading apps,” Micromax CEO Vineet Taneja remarked once at the launch of a Micromax device that came with a number of preinstalled apps and games.
Which brings us back to the question asked by our friend at the very beginning: what is so special about “pure” Android anyway?
Well, the geek side of us would reply: it comes with no additional software apart from Google’s own, so runs smoothly; it ensures that you get more out of your device’s RAM and storage; it leaves the entire device at your disposal to do as you please – customise it in any way, install the apps you want; and so on. And this seems so logical that many of our colleagues at times suggest that companies should opt for “pure Android” on their devices instead of what they consider to be “resource guzzling overlays and apps” such as TouchWiz, Sense, Vibe UI, MIUI and so on. Give the consumer a plain canvas and let him or her paint the picture they want, seems to be the line of thought here.
This might seem very logical and even liberating, but it ignores a fundamental question: does the consumer want to paint at all? Perhaps all he or she is looking for is a pleasant-looking painting to hang on their walls! The best example of this was perhaps seen on the Lenovo Vibe Z2 Pro, which allowed users to switch from Lenovo’s Vibe UI to stock Android. Reviewers loved the option, but as per our sources, the consumers were largely indifferent. “You might curse all the apps we add on to the device and our icons and themes, but for the consumer, they are a massive bonus,” a Lenovo executive told me. “You see, most consumers buy a phone to use it, not to customise it! Many people get annoyed if the first thing they have to do after buying a phone is spend hours installing apps on it – and Facebook and Twitter are no longer the 10-20 MB apps they used to be.”
And it is not just about Android. Even when OnePlus and YU released their Cyanogen based devices in late 2015, we were deluged with queries about what was so special about Cyanogen, an OS that prides itself on being resource-efficient and easy to customise. Ironically, many pundits who hanker for pure Android also recommended those looking for a Windows Phone device pick one from Nokia because – pause – they came with more preinstalled apps! Some proponents of “pure Android” ironically even invole the iPhone as an example of a device that comes with almost no preinstalled apps on it, but then the iPhone’s target audience generally is more niche and much less mainstream than that of Android – you can get a decent Android device for a price that is a fifth of the latest iPhone!
“Why do you think a consumer would want to sit down and start customizing a phone the moment he or she gets it,” I remember a MIUI developer telling me. “Take it from me in writing: mainstream consumers don’t sit around checking RAM used or trying to change launch sequence animations. They want as much as possible out of the box.” Perhaps the cruellest cut came from one of my colleagues: “Look, if pure Android was SO important, the Nexus and Android One devices would be outselling everything else on the market. They are not, in spite of major marketing drives and the goodwill Google enjoys.”
So, is the “pure Android is better” line of thought wrong? Well, it all really depends on your way of thinking. The difference between pure Android and a customised one is like the difference between a home cooked meal and one that you get in a restaurant. In the former, you have total control over everything – the salt, the spices, the time of cooking, even the serving dishes. In the latter, you pretty much have to put up with what is served. But then, quite often, the latter is what many people seek, and even covet and pay extra for – see the queues outside restaurants. As in so many things in life, it really boils down to how we use that most valuable asset that we possess – time. For those who love tweaking their devices and controlling everything on it, pure Android is a blessing. For those who would rather hit the ground running, a ‘skinned’ version with loads of preinstalled apps is a much better option.
And to be fair, some of the overlays or skins on Android add a lot to the user experience, bringing in features that “pure Android” does not have. A Galaxy Note user would have little use of pure Android as they would not be able to make the most of the stylus, whereas someone used to the photography options on a device like the Vibe Shot or the LG G4 might find the photography app on a pure Android device a tad too plain (we SO wish the camera app on the Moto X Style was that of the Vibe Shot!). Top this all off with commonly used apps like browsers, messengers and social networks and popular games coming preinstalled and you can see why so many prefer their Android ‘skinned and layered.’
Which is not to say that “pure Android” is a bad thing. No, our geek hearts still love the idea of getting a device that you can tweak and customize to your heart’s content. But yes, we do think it is time we acknowledged that most consumers are NOT geeks. Pure Android is a good option for those in the mood and mind to customise their devices, but for those who would rather do something else, its skinned/layered counterparts rule.
Purity does not ensure superiority in all matters Android.