Droid X launch bits pt2: Motoblur (as we knew it), is dead. Beginning of the end for custom UIs?
During Wednesday’s Verizon Motorola Droid X launch, I noticed a couple of interesting things.
The first one was the news that Google is now activating 160K Android devices a day. It seems like an official confirmation, that Android has now entered hockey stick hypergrowth mode. They already leaped ahead of iPhone, and, if things continue as they are, Android may displace Symbian as #1 smartphone OS next year. I wrote about it in Part 1 of Droid X launch bits.
Another interesting takeway from Droid X launch, was the total absence of Motorola Blur custom user interface from the event. When asked about it, Sanjay Jha, Motorola CEO, confirmed that MotoBlur is running on Droid X, but it has been hidden from the user.
Hidden from the user?! WTF?!
If you remember the launch of the first Motorola Android phone – Motorola CLIQ – last September, the MotoBlur interface was the key to Motorola Android smartphone strategy, the thing that “differentiates the Android experience,… and delivers a solution that’s instinctive, social and smart”. 10 months later, it’s hidden away somewhere in the bowels of Android 2.1, and even Motorola doesn’t seem to care much about Blur anymore.
Google, and amazingly fast evolution of Android happened. When Android was young, at 1.5/1.6 stage, it’s user interface was pretty basic and lacked a lot of things. There was a lot of room for improvement, so custom UIs like HTC Sense, MotoBlur, Samsung TouchWiz, or Sony UXP, well, they made sense. Some of them were better, some were worse, but they improved overall user experience a lot.
But Google does not care much about what third party vendors are doing on top of Android. They’ve set out to build the best mobile operating system by themselves, and they are doing it at their customary Internet speed.
Smartphone vendors, used to a more leisurely mobile industry development pace, are falling behind. They are stuck with the old versions of Android, with customized user interfaces, that look ancient after a few months, with the launch of the next iteration of Android. They scramble to adapt their UI shells to the new version ASAP. But by the time they are ready, the next iteration of Android is out, and smartphone vendors look like fools, again.
This happens even to the best of them, like HTC, who had years of experience in developing custom user interfaces for smartphone OSes, starting with Windows Mobile Touch Flo in 2007. Those with less software development prowess, get totally screwed.
Sony Ericsson Xperia X10 is a case in point. Announced in November last year, it could have launched with Android 1.6 before Christmas, then upgraded to Android 2.1 in February/March, and then to Froyo by July. And, with the specs Xperia X10 has, it would have reigned supreme, without any serious competition for 5 months, which is eternity in mobile biz.
Instead, Sony Ericsson wasted those 5 months getting their Timescape and Mediascape UI apps to run with acceptable speed on a 1GHZ CPU (?!), then launched in April, with overall user experience inferior to that of stock Android 2.1. Giving an opportunity for HTC to launch Desire, and eat X10′s lunch. Now, Sony Ericsson is promising Xperia X10 upgrade to Android 2.1… sometime in Q3 or Q4. With Android Froyo already here, and Gingerbread just around the corner…
Sony Ericsson might be an extreme case, but similar problems are facing everyone. And now, Google has hinted, that the main focus of the next few Android releases will be the user interface. How do you think the UI improvements in Android Gingerbread, and then the next Android iteration, will compare to Sony UXP, Samsung Touch Wiz, or HTC Sense? Looking at how things progressed with Android so far, I think it’s no contest at all. And third party vendors loose.
Motorola must be the first to see the writing on the wall, and let Google take over the overall user experience. Motoblur is now just another Android app, that comes pre-installed on the handset. It does what it does pretty well, some Droid X users may love it. And, if they keep investing and developing it, Blur service can be a good point of differentiation for Motorola. But, by relegating the Blur to an Android app status, Motorola can move much faster both with OS, and Blur app upgrades.
I wonder if we are now witnessing the beginning of the end of custom user interface shells in the smartphones. Microsoft has already stated that they won’t allow the UI replacements on their Windows Phone 7 OS. Google, while not so explicit about that, is just moving too fast for smartphone vendors to catch up.
HTC, Samsung, Sony Ericsson and others, might be very reluctant to give up the UI control to OS vendors, but their choices now are pretty limited. They either keep their own custom UIs, and have products that are already behind the state of the art at launch, or reduce the ambitions, and follow in Motorola footsteps, with a selection of their own custom apps/services.