Blog Post

Android Phone Makers Push the Edge in Drive to Differentiate

Android (s GOOG) handset makers HTC and Motorola (s MMI) are extending their user interface skins in new directions to help differentiate their hardware. But in some cases, the extension could exacerbate Android’s already sticky problem of fragmentation. UI skins show how competitive it is for Android hardware makers, and how they’re looking to any edge to help their products stand out from the crowd.

On Thursday, HTC unveiled the OpenSense SDK, a tool that will allow developers to write applications on top of its Sense UI. The new SDK is part of a larger rollout of HTCdev, a program aimed at supporting developers by providing tools and resources. Developers will now be able to write applications for Sense 3.0 and will be able to access APIs and sample code for 3-D displays and HTC’s tablet pen. But Sense 3.0 is already raising the specter of more fragmentation, because it won’t work on all older HTC Android devices.

The OpenSense SDK could be good for developers looking to build their own apps on top of HTC’s impressive Android hardware. And it shows that HTC is working even harder to enlist the help of developers to aid its cause. But it means there could be a growing library of apps that are only available on specific Android phones. Despite Android’s claims of openness, that could mean a closed set of software unavailable to other Android users. And it could also add more update woes for users. Already, many phones are slow to get new Android updates, as manufacturers have to try hard to make the new software work with their UI skins. A new set of apps on top of Sense could further complicate the update process. Google has finally owned up to the fragmentation issue, launching an industry coalition to help solve the issue. But it is still a concern that is not going away.

Motorola, meanwhile, also has new plans for its own proprietary interface, called Motoblur. CEO Sanjay Jha said on Thursday that he envisions Motoblur becoming more intelligent about how apps are affecting the performance of the phone. He said Motoblur could warn users about how much power certain apps are consuming, allowing them to shut them off to conserve battery life. He said it’s a response to the fact that bad application performance is behind 70 percent of the returns of Motorola Android devices, something he blames on the open Android Market, which lets any app in.

A Motoblur that monitors the battery impact of apps would be a useful feature for many users, and it shows again that manufacturers are trying to get creative in how they differentiate their devices. Motorola made a big bet on Android, and unlike HTC, it doesn’t have another platform like Windows Phone 7 (s MSFT) to lean on. It needs to rise to the top in the Android scrum, which is becoming increasingly hard, thanks to competitors like Samsung, which owns the component food chain. This drive to differentiate is keenly felt by manufacturers. Nokia (s NOK) had considered jumping on the Android bandwagon, but it decided against doing so because it couldn’t get Google to give it special considerations that would allow it to add its own twists to the operating system. Even with Nokia’s huge manufacturing operation, it still felt it needed an inside edge from Google; otherwise it would be “just another company distributing Android,” Nokia CEO Stephen Elop said in a BusinessWeek story.

That’s the reality for current Android makers. They need to keep finding ways to make their hardware stand out, even if it means fragmenting an already fragmented platform. The platform as a whole is still soaring in sales, but the really interesting battle is continuing to unfold between device manufacturers.

26 Responses to “Android Phone Makers Push the Edge in Drive to Differentiate”

  1. Android Phones are really good, accessing mails, social media was never this much easy with mobiles…As comparing motorola and HTC Mobile Phones i would like to say Samsung Galaxy S and LG Optimus are much better, the touch capacity is really great, it looks fabulous, smart and also light weight…And for Android i would just say its amazing technology that Google Introduced..:)

  2. Michael

    All of the “skins” are a problem for Android. In general they primarily add bugs and delays to Android releases. I do not want a Sense phone or a Touchwiz phone or a Motoblur phone. I want an Android. Come on, oems and carriers – stop pissing on android.

    • They have to piss on android or they become just another commodity – They watched that movie with Microsoft and don’t want to repeat and just be a Google bitch.

  3. Abbie

    What is Nokia raving on about?

    (Above) we see the Android OEMs very busy differentiating their handsets with unique interfaces. Then we have Nokia claiming that it can’t differentiate with Android.

    What is wrong with Nokia? Nokia doesn’t make sense (so to speak). It went with Windows Phone that allows much less differentiation.

    We still haven’t heard any logical explanation from Elop as to why he went exclusively Windows Phone. Bizzare.

  4. Red Oscar

    I don’t understand all this obsession with phone hardware and their skins. To me it’s all about the carrier and their plans. Until Virgin Mobile came out with their $25 BeyondTalk plan, I wasn’t going to spring for any smartphone. All this money thrown down the toilet on expensive carrier plans is a sin. VM and Optimus V suits me just fine.

  5. dvorkinista

    Pure Android for me. Sense has a couple of cute things, but also a lot of rough edges. All I need is a better consolidated email/contacts/calendar client. Touchdown is cool but it’s not nearly as integrated into the rest of the OS, and it only support exchange.

  6. If the manufacturers develop APIs and encourage devs to write to their version of android, can one really clump all of android together for marketshare numbers? I don’t think so, android is just an underlying, unnoticed embedded system at that point.

  7. And I am content to let you work out the bugs with each ‘pure google’ update in time for my official update from HTC…

    Samsung is a different story, but HTC & Moto updates are timely… :-)

    • ahow628

      HTC & Moto are timely? The Droid X and the Evo are just getting Gingerbread now. It was originally released by Google almost exactly 6 months ago. That doesn’t seem very timely at all. I would consider timely to be 2-4 weeks to be sure there aren’t any major bugs, not 6 months.

      Also note that the Evo is getting 2.3.3, not the current 2.3.4.

      • corwin1681

        Yeah, maybe HTC and Motorola are slow. But comparing to other manufactures – they are the fastest ones to release updetes, especially HTC, they are by far the best and most reliable. And so far – Samsung is by far the worst as far as upgrades go

  8. ahow628

    All I want is to get the latest version of Android as soon as it comes out (or at the very least, fairly soon). With my Evo, I do that via CM7. My next phone has to be either a Nexus series or a heavily developed phone, like the Evo.

    Skins do nothing for me and actually work in the opposite direction for me.

  9. onskh

    Android User Experience differentiation is critical for an OEM to have their devices stand out from the me-too crowd of Android devices. But differentiating, while fragmenting from “standard” Android is working against their own best interests by disrupting the vibrant developer ecosystem and most likely confusing users.

    Our company, Onskreen, focuses on UX differentiation without creating fragmentation. We just released an Android Tablet profile for OEMs, that enables users to truly multi-task by viewing and using multiple apps simultaneously. Demo video at:

  10. Sam Pearl

    The makers of Android phones will have to add many features to remain competitive because Nokia Phone 7 is coming to take over cell phone market. There will be a lot at steak.

  11. When you were writing this blog, who did you have in mind? Consumers? OEMs? Apple? Google? I fail to understand this continued cry about how hard is it for OEMs differentiate themselves with each other using Android (Tone in the last paragraph). But why are you blind to the fact that until Android came along they all were scraping the bottom of MSFT barrel without luck? Android came along and now they have a fair shot at producing something meaningful, testing themselves against the best. Now if they have to struggle hard to create a skin (OS is already made free for them), which is a glorified app in many ways, that differentiates with one another, let them do it! Its good for technology and ultimately good for consumers!

    • Droidfan

      This is the very point of Android. Competition between the OEMs keeps the Android ecosystem moving forward at a blistering pace. In fact a couple of blogs have commented on hardware capability outstripping the OS. I believe Android diversity is the one thing that will keep them ahead of the walled garden competitors.

  12. Lucian Armasu

    I wish they differentiated more on hardware, the stuff they’re actually supposed to be good at. So far none of the manufacturers has really proved that they can offer true differentiation with their skins. Most people still buy their phones with only 3 main factors in mind: price, design and hardware. Lately, HTC has made pretty much all their phones the same. They’re losing focus of what really matters to theirs customers while they chase away UI customizations.

    • Travis

      While I don’t disagree with you, consumers love hardware, the issue is that with Android hardware becomes a commodity, (similar to what happened in the late 90’s early 2000’s with PCs). Everyone will have dual core in 6 months. Everyone will have 12 megapixel cameras. Everyone will have 4g, GPS, etc. It becomes difficult to differentiate on hardware. Each manufacture has access to the same bits and pieces. Soon the only way manufacturers can differentiate is the type of frosting they put on top of the Android desert. The hard part for handset manufacturers is there is very little lock-in or loyalty to an Android hardware brand. So to keep users they need to lock them into the frosting.

      • Lucian Armasu

        Perhaps, but millions of people will choose Galaxy S2 over HTC Sensation because it’s such an excellent overall product with better performance.

        I think there are ways to differentiate through hardware, stuff we might not even imagine right now. It’s just that they choose to go the easy way.

    • Many common users won’t even understand the hardware specs! So for the phone makers it is best to focus on differentiating the devices on UI and industrial design. Who bothers about what is hidden inside the case?

    • worldbfree4me

      Apple and R.I.M. use the same Form Factors, so why not HTC. “If ain’t broke, don’t fix it” makes good business sense! The Kerocera Echo is a break from norm and look what kind of attention it’s garnering. Was the 3gs any different from iPhone 3g? Will iPhone 4gs be much different from the 4g? Don’t even get me started on R.I.M. If you don’t care for Android, just come out and say it.

      Much of the hatred towards a successful company is usually veiled envy, so say most psychologists.

      “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”
      — Martin Luther King Jr