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As Lenovo goes for Stock Android… I will weep for Vibe UI

One fewer UI option, alas

by: - Last updated on: August 7th, 2017

Another one bites the dust. No, we are not talking about Queen’s immortal rock number, or even someone chucked casually aside by The Rock (Siri’s current squeeze). We are referring to another company claiming to go the Stock Android way – Lenovo. As per reports, the company has done away with its Vibe UI interface and will henceforth be releasing devices running stock Android. The news has been greeted with almost universal acclaim, with most people calling it a great move, as it paves the way for an “uncluttered” Android experience and of course, easier updates.

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There is a reason for this ecstatic response, of course. And it is not because stock Android is great (it might or might not be, depending on your point of view), but because most of the reporting in and on the world of tech comes from what I affectionately love to call the Geek Brigade. These are colleagues who are well-versed in the world of technology and like nothing better than a device which they can customize to their heart’s extent.

I will not share their happiness and will, in fact, shed a tear for the demise of the Vibe UI. No, it is not because I hate stock Android (I do not) or I especially loved Vibe UI (I did not). But because the death of Vibe UI deprives us of an option. And that, believe me, is not good.

Stock Android is nifty, neat…and niche!

I do not doubt their sincerity, but a stark fact is that a large number of those hailing stock Android is perhaps not “typical” tech users. At least not in India. If you find that difficult to believe, then I would suggest a trip to a retailer selling phones. See a person purchasing an Android device or even an iPhone – it is a fair chance that the person will ask the dealer to help him/her install applications on the device, be it Facebook, Instagram or Candy Crush. If they do not do so, they inevitably have a friend or a family “expert” who is extremely adept at installing apps and doing tasks like transferring contacts and setting up e-mail accounts. No, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, a consumer does not go “yay, I have a new phone, and I can now start installing apps on it from scratch” – many of them, in fact, find it a pain to go to an app store and download an app. They hate sharing credit card information, and passwords and logins make them nervous.

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Which is part of the reason why so many phone manufacturers try to customize the Android experience through UI skins and interfaces – a layer that they place over Android. In the worst case scenario (and one which unfortunately occurs far too often for comfort), this results in a tonne of bloatware (or superfluous or unnecessary apps) ending up on the device, but in other cases, it gives users access to features that would otherwise have not been available under stock Android – be it the switching off the display when you place the phone in your pocket or different shooting options in the camera app (our pet peeve with stock Android). Many of us might at the higher echelons of tech might find it difficult to believe, but even having additional wallpapers and ringtones on a device can make a difference to a user.

The design of a device makes it distinct but so does its UI. In many cases (pun unintended), we tend to identify a device as much by its UI ash by its design – the fonts, the icons, the wallpapers, even. Love them or hate them, what one cannot deny is that these UIs added another level of choice to the consumer’s buying decision – I know a number of people who hesitated in moving from HTC to Samsung devices in HTC’s heydays simply because HTC’s Sense UI was so addictive and smooth. Yes, on most Android devices, you can change the look and feel of the device using apps, but can I be painfully blunt? A vast majority of users still do not use them.

It’s simple, plain…and does not have too many takers

If that sounds unfair or untrue, do take a look at the most popular apps on Google Play – themes do not top them. That’s also the reason why the likes of Google and Facebook have not really followed up intensely on their initial attempts to grab your home screen space – most people are not that interested in changing the look and feel of their devices UI wise and are more than content with what comes out of the box. And this is not a new phenomenon: in the days before the smartphone revolution, it was the UI that more often than not anchored people to brands: a Nokia user found it too difficult to switch to a Sony Ericsson because of its UI and vice versa.

As I have said earlier, I have nothing against stock Android per se, and I believe that there is a certain segment of the audience that does value it and will indeed pay a premium for it. But all evidence that we have suggests that this is not a large segment in numerical terms – which is why in spite of all the hype and hoopla surrounding them, none of the Nexus, Pixel and AndroidOne series of devices was never able to garner significant market share. Even the Motorola range of devices and the nearly stock Android-like Oxygen OS on the OnePlus series have not exactly turned the markets on their head, although they have turned in respectable numbers. To cut a long story short – Android is the darling of the critics, but it does not really make up a significant number when it comes to the overall Android picture. A UI overlay is a bit like junk food – it might not always be healthy for you, but it sure is very convenient if you are not the type that wants to spend hours in the kitchen.

We are sure Lenovo’s decision to move to stock Android was based on some very solid ground, but somehow we are not too sure numbers came into the picture. Simply because – duh! – The numbers are not very good. In fact, as per some of our sources, Lenovo handsets still run Motorola close in the Indian market, in spite of having laid relatively low for a while. The rationale for the move to stock Android might be as simple as having Moto and Lenovo on relatively the same page, UI wise – although both stock Androids have their own little touches (Moto has its gestures, Lenovo has TheaterMax and so on). Whatever it is, the fact is that I am a little saddened by the fact that the company decided to give up on its own UI. No, Vibe UI was not perfect – it could be buggy at times, and yes, stock Android fans would always find it a bit overwhelming, but it did have its own useful touches (I wrote about some of them a few years ago) and if it had a flaw, it was that unlike MIUI and EMUI, it tended to fluctuate, sometimes not building up on features after hyping them. The UI simply seemed to change too often. Perhaps that is why it did not build up a loyal following.

It is too early to say whether this move from Lenovo will pay dividends for its devices. Or whether it will unleash a new wave of stock Android devices. However, the end of Vibe UI does mean one lesser option in UI terms for Android versions, which is a bit of a pity, given the fact that one of the key strengths of the OS is its sheer flexibility – it is like software dough which can be kneaded and made into different UI dishes by different cooks! There is one lesser dish on the menu now, and that in my book is not a good thing. I could be wrong.

Incidentally, do you know what one of my favorite features of the earlier edition of Vibe UI was?

The ability to run stock Android on the Vibe Z2 Pro!

Rest in Peace, Vibe UI. Well played.

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