A Totally Custom Smartphone
“Be together. Not the same.” Android’s fleeting motto in an ad campaign that ran a couple of years ago really spoke to me. As a longtime Android-user and iPhone-dismisser, my reasoning for sticking to the operating system was so succinctly summed up in just five words. It was an outright jab at a company that’s known for restricting its users’ ability to alter the way their devices function. It was also a celebration for the operating system, reminding its users that although they didn’t converse via blue bubbles, they were still one diverse community.
To me, the “Be together. Note the same.” campaign manifested itself in one primary area of the Android experience; an area that many Android owners don’t know about — device theming. To those unfamiliar with the field, device theming is the alteration of a phone’s home screen to look the way the user wants it to look. It’s like taking the screen with all of the apps on it on an iPhone and making it completely custom to the user. It was a hobby I really enjoyed, and remained a big reason for why I would rather stick to Androids than switch to another operating system.
Then my priorities shifted, and so too did my understanding of the future of the Android platform. I bought a Google Pixel because I wanted the best and brightest version of Android as soon as it came out and I was happy with what I got, at first.
When I first switched, I kept the default launcher that the phone came with to see what I thought about it. The answer: it was good. Better than what I was used to with the launcher that comes with Samsung phones. The overall experience was cleaner and there weren’t as many hoops to jump through to get the phone to work the way I wanted. But just like with any new phone I get, after a couple of months, I felt that I needed a change. I downloaded my trusty Nova Launcher, Android’s prime alternative home screen app, and I started to make something new.
At first everything was okay; I came up with something that I was happy with and I started to use the phone like normal, but something was different. Navigational controls had shifted from the fancy new gesture controls, which had still yet to be perfected, back to the antiquated tri-button layout that dates back to when Android phones dropped the home button.
After getting used to the gesture controls that I began to enjoy using, I went back to the launcher that the phone comes with, this time with a feeling that I didn’t have the same level of control over my phone that I was used to. I was starting to get boxed in by the operating system.
More time went by and the new, improved version of gesture controls that more closely match Apple’s slick implementation was released and they were great. My navigational experience was better than it had ever been and Google’s addressing of their phones’ RAM management issues meant that the experience was even smoother. But still, I craved a change of scenery where my apps were laid out.
This time the navigational experience was even more broken than before. Nova Launcher was crashing and so was my phone. Bugs like these are expected in beta releases of software, but not in the full release. Frustrated, I went back to the default home screen again and, aside from a few tests, I haven’t looked back since.
Google has since addressed the problems they had created with using alternate launchers and has made the required changes. But still, third-party launchers are buggy and unreliable, especially when used with gesture controls. Part of these problems are on Google’s end and part of them are on the launchers’, but fixes seem to be getting longer to roll out and there is concern in the Android community that they may never come at all.
Although Google’s “Be together. Not the same.” motto more likely refers to the platform’s heterogeneous manufacturers, there were examples of those manufacturers not only allowing further customization on their platforms, but encouraging it. Now it seems that the wild west of customization might be coming to a close as manufacturers try to make it more mainstream and accessible with built-in customization options. Unfortunately, as manufacturers begin to accept and build customization more into their phones, the tools Android users had used in the past transform from being seen as unconcerning addons into direct competition in the eyes of smartphone manufacturers. That’s not to say that mainstream customization is bad, but it certainly has been proven to be more limited than the customization that Android fans have been used to. Maybe more robust built-in customization will come to Android in the future, but for now we’re stuck with buggy third-party options and unfinished first-party ones.