An exploration of the practice of OEM skinning

It's a simple question. Why do OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) like Samsung, HTC and Huawei, to name a few, use skins on their phones? It is often apparent that their users don't care about, or don't even like, their Android skins. And skins are a lot of work for the OEM too, especially for something that people don't like. A lot of people like stock Android, but still buy a non-Nexus device because they like the hardware of another device better. Although I will admit that there are a few exceptions (Hilarious exhibit A above), it just seems like a lot of techies like us with skinned phones end up using a custom ROM to get a stock-like experience. I want to try to explain this first-world phenomenon. But first, a bit of my history.

Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs; they are mere background for this post's origin.

I used to be an iPhone user. My first smartphone was an iPhone 3GS, after which I moved to an iPhone 4S right after its release, in October 2011. About 6 months after buying my 4S, I began to watch the Android platform. I noticed that it was beginning to mature into a viable mobile device option for me. Soon after, at Google I/O 2012, the Nexus 7 and Android Jelly Bean were introduced. In the market for a new tablet and being a fan of the 7 inch form factor, I bought a Nexus 7, and that was my first Android device. I loved it, to say the least. It seemed like every time I went from it back to my iPhone I missed some features from my Nexus 7. Whether it was the system-wide back button, or home screen widgets, or something else, my iPhone paled in comparison to my Nexus 7. I began to do my research on Android phones, thinking I would wait until my AT&T contract was up in about a year and make the switch. I learned all about the various skins and even paid a few visits to the AT&T store to get a feel for them. You see, I had originally looked at the Galaxy Nexus, but the general feedback that I saw was negative, so I tried to accept the fact that I would have to learn to live with a skinned phone. But every time I went back to my Nexus 7, stock Android seemed so much faster and more beautiful than any skin I had tried. The the Nexus 4 came along, and that changed everything.

It, in my opinion, was the iPhone of the Android world. It promised updates directly from the source, while also showing Android the way Google intended it. It beat the proverbial crap out of my iPhone in just about every category I could conceive. I was smitten. And, as an added bonus, I could have it now without any extra fees from the folks at AT&T. I unfortunately missed the first round of stock, but I caught it at the second. Score! I got it in early January, and it has been great. Stock Android is fantastic, and I truly believe that it is the best phone that I have ever owned. Now, on to the rest of the story.

A History Lesson

As I said in the background portion of this post, I used to see Android as an immature platform. Apparently, I was not alone. This is where the practice of OEM skinning has its roots. For all of you new Android users like me, you may not know that Android was not always the fully-featured mobile OS giant that it is now. For quite a while, "stock" Android (and I use that term loosely) wasn't nearly as functional as its skinned counterparts. It was, in the truest sense, a development platform. A blank canvas for OEMs to paint with the colors they wanted. And so, back then, OEMs had to make Android skins just to make the OS functional. Then, Honeycomb came along. It brought with it small, but important, changes that elevated stock Android to a level of functionality very close to that of skinned Android. This continued as Google released Ice Cream Sandwich, and finally Jelly Bean. By now, stock Android has become a viable option on its own, without skinning. Functionality-wise, stock Android is now just as functional, if not more functional, than skinned Android. So, from this perspective, it is quite obvious that the OEMs are simply stuck in the past. However, they are not entirely in control of their own destiny. The OEMs have to face another force too: the carriers.

Carrier Control

The carriers themselves also have a history that is relatable to the skinning story. Think back a few years ago. Back to the years of feature phones. When it was "totally radical, maaan" to have a Motorola Razr flip phone. Back then, the carriers had tremendous control over the OEMs and their phones. And they loved it. What happened when you turned one of those old feature phones on? You didn't see an Apple logo, or the manufacturer's name, or the OS name. You saw the carrier's logo, with the carrier's name, while a carrier-specific tone played. The phone was all about the carrier. People didn't care who made their phone. Nokia, LG, Samsung, whoever, it didn't matter. They all made calls and sent texts. When you got a call (remember those?), a carrier-preloaded ringtone played. The carrier's name was even plastered all over the device. Again, the carriers loved this. Branding galore, and free advertising. Then Apple comes along, releases the iPhone, and changes the industry forever. You won't find a speck of carrier branding anywhere on that thing. Now, people stopped caring about the carrier. We entered the age of the mobile OS. People stopped asking "Oh, who's your carrier?" and started to ask "What version of Android does that run?". The carriers' day in the sun ended, and they were mad. Smart phones changed their whole world for the better, but also for the worse. Now, you may be asking, "Why is he rambling on about carriers in a post about OEM skins?". The carriers, as history shows, love control. They hated giving it up. So, they continued to do what they did best, and held on to every last thread of the past that they could. They forced the OEMs to skin their versions of Android and add carrier branding. To this day, all carrier-subsidized Android phones are labeled with that carrier's logo. And many, on startup, show the carrier's branding like those old feature phones used to do (Recent example: Samsung Galaxy S III).

Carrier-subsidized Android phones are also loaded with the carrier's own bloatware, and this software is often only usable by buying an extra service from the carrier. Carriers love this because, if they can convince Joe Consumer that their service is somehow better than another, probably free version of that service, it can make them a lot of money. This software is loaded by the manufacturer with their skin. So, to add another reason, skinning happens for carrier control.

OEM Control

Starting simply here, skins allow the OEM to add their own products and services onto the device. If Samsung, for example, can convince the consumer that their app store, S-Apps, is better than Google Play, then they have a new source of revenue.

We must also not overlook the fact that OEMs profit when people upgrade. If the OEMs notice that a phone is getting old, they can pretend that the skin didn't work on that phone, and refuse to release that update. As a simple fact of business, that will strongly encourage consumers to upgrade their phones to get the latest updates and features. This sells another phone. And, what if a really important update comes around that people really want but don't want to wait six months for it to be skinned and tested? They can always buy the latest phone that was just released and already has the update. Therefore, skinning also happens because it is a conspiracy.

In addition, OEMs also want to foster brand loyalty, so they want to take steps to put their brand into the OS. If people use Samsung TouchWiz, and they know its a Samsung phone, and they don't know anything else, they are likely to stick with TouchWiz, even if there are better options out there. As a simple known fact, people like to stick to what they know (a branch of homeostasis, for any biology nerds out there), so if they use Samsung TouchWiz for quite a while, the average consumer will get used to it and not want to change it. If a skin is even different enough, people who learn Android through the lens of one skin could have difficulty switching to a different one.

OEM Differentiation

This is a big one. OEMs see a need to make their Android phones different from other companies' phones in order to succeed. Going farther than just branding, the OEMs want to add actual features that make their phones different from a usability standpoint than the next guys' phone. A common example is in TouchWiz (I apologize for using this for another example, but it is one of the most popular skins) where, on some devices, the user has the ability to split their device's screen in two and run two apps at once, a feature they have named DualView. This is a huge feature that many want to see integrated into stock Android, including this author. This is one of the few good reasons for an OEM to skin Android. However, we have gotten to a point in time where many people are so tired of skins that building a phone with stock Android would actually be enough differentiation to sell the phone. See: Nexus 4.

Why OEMs shouldn't skin their phones

This part has been the subject of many debates in the past, and requires very little explanation, so I've decided to put it in a list. This list could also probably be much longer, so I'll just include the main reasons.

-Skins slow down the phone significantly

-Skins take a long time to be updated from stock Android releases, and often are not updated at all

-It is a lot of unnecessary work for them

-Many skins are ugly

-Some skins have limited functionality compared to stock Android

-Skins are usually more of a pain to the consumer than they are worth

-Skins compound the problem of Android fragmentation

-Skins degrade the public's perception of the Android platform in general

Wrap-Up

Why do OEMs skin their phones? As we have seen, it provides huge benefits for the carriers and the OEMs, but few for the consumers. As such, it should not come as a surprise that, despite all of the work it takes, OEMs continue to skin their phones. And, despite the fact that they don't like them, people still buy skinned phones due to a lack of options.

Into the future...

After seeing the success of stock devices like the Nexus 4 and its mass-market appeal, I truly believe that OEMs will start to see the value in stock Android phones. It may not happen at this year's Mobile World Congress, but you never know what you could see next year. Motorola, now owned by Google, will almost definitely start to release stock Android phones soon, maybe even exclusively. I would even go so far as to predict that Google's next Nexus device will be made by Motorola, and I would also expect them to manufacture all of the Nexus phones in the future.

Comments?

I'd love to hear from all of you Verge citizens on the matter. Did I miss a reason as to why OEMs do skin their devices? Did I miss a reason as to why OEMs shouldn't skin their devices? Lastly, seeing as these skinned-vs-stock Android debates can get a little serious, please remain civilized in your comments.

Full Disclosure

Although I have used skinned Android phones and read many of the debates, I have never owned a skinned Android phone and am, therefore, a little biased toward stock Android. As I said, the Nexus 4 is my first and, so far, only Android phone.

Thanks!