Blog Post

Google Strikes A Blow For Android Consistency By Requiring Stock Theme

In explaining how mobile developers can use Android 4.0’s Holo theme, Google (NSDQ: GOOG) acknowledged two of the most persistent complaints about Android development–fragmentation and software updates–and promised that apps developed for the new OS will look more consistent across different Android devices.

Adam Powell, a Google engineer in charge of Android frameworks, updated Google’s Android Developer Blog Tuesday with a post explaining how Google changed the way Android 4.0 handles different themes (sets of visual design principles for how icons and buttons should be laid out): Holo, a stock Google-developed Android theme introduced along with the debut of the tablet-specific Android 3.0 version, and DeviceDefault, which defaults to a phone maker’s custom theme. Much of the post was quite technical, but it addressed how application developers can be frustrated by the custom user interfaces popular among Android device makers and how consumers can be frustrated by the lack of software updates.

Google has now made it a requirement that device makers include the Holo theme (see the Galaxy Nexus for an example) in order to meet Google’s compatibility requirements and therefore be allowed include the Android Market on those devices. Those manufacturers don’t have to present the Holo theme if they would prefer to use their custom themes, such as Samsung’s TouchWhiz or Motorola’s Motoblur, but it must be present on the device and available to third-party applications.

Basically, Google is now encouraging app developers to write apps that will look like they’d be at home on its Nexus-class devices. Developers can still target device-specific user interfaces like the ones mentioned above by using DeviceDefault themes in their app code, but Google is dangling an anti-fragmentation carrot by promising that “Android apps running on 4.0 and forward can use the Holo themes and be assured that their look and feel will not change when running on a device with a custom skin. … These changes let you spend more time on your design and less time worrying about what will be different from one device to another.”

That’s not all: Google has finally articulated how devices designed for Android 4.0 could be able to receive future updates much more quickly than devices designed for older operating systems, although it made no mention of its partners or the grand supreme council of software updates that was promised last May at Google I/O.

“Formally separating these theme families (Holo and DeviceDefault) will also make future merges easier for manufacturers updating to a new platform version, helping more devices update more quickly,” Powell wrote.

It will take some time before the Android community really plunges into Android 4.0 development before we get some sense of whether or not these decisions really do make a difference for Android developers. Still, it’s always good to see Google acknowledging Android flaws that it can improve, which will help it court mobile developers who tend to prioritize iOS development because of how easy it is to create a consistent user experience across a huge base of mobile users.