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.

What happened?

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.

Author: Stasys Bielinis

While I like to play with the latest gadgets, I am even more interested in broad technology trends. With mobile now taking over the world - following the latest technology news, looking for insights, sharing and discussing them with passionate audience - it's hard to imagine a better place for me to be. You can find me on Twitter as @UVStaska'

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  • butchyon

    You have hit the proverbial nail right dead-center on the head, my friend! Great article. Google will eventually control the UI, too. It's inevitable, and the only way to go…

  • Bob

    160000 devices daily wow

  • iphone eater

    no its not the end just Motorola got lazy. HTC sense UI still gonna be around and still the best!

  • http://www.staska.net Staska

    We'll see.

    Yes, HTC Sense is the best UI for Android 1.6 and 2.1, probably for 2.2
    Froyo too, when that is available. But look at what costs in delay.

    Without Sense UI, HTC had stock Android running Google Nexus one in January.
    They were able to release Nexus One version with Sense – HTC Desire only in
    late April. HTC Hero upgrade to 2.1 took even longer.

    And who knows when the Froyo upgrades for Desire, Legend, Incredible, EVO 4G
    etc; will come. Probably sooner, because Eclair–>Froyo is much more
    incremental upgrade, then was Donut–>Eclair.

    But then we have Android Gingerbread coming, where Google promises huge user
    interface improvements. How long will it take HTC to get Sense UI ready for

  • iphone eater

    how do you know their current version isnt compatible with the next android versions?

  • http://www.staska.net Staska

    I don't really “know”. But I'm pretty sure about this. None of the previous
    versions (1.6, 2.1) were compatible with the next and required tweaks.

    And Google has stated, and showed by their actions, that they do not care at
    all if the newer Android version breaks the compatibility of third party

    So my question would be: Why would you think, that the current version of
    Sense UI can be compatible with future iterations of Android?

  • http://twitter.com/westmanon9 west

    thats a good thing to see , like HTC scene , it became an excuse of the update delay also confuse and frustrated the users