One of Android’s Most Treasured Secrets Is Quickly Going Away, and Apple Is Picking Up the Pieces.

How Android is slipping in one of its cornerstones.

Jacob Mitchener
Dec 3, 2020 · 7 min read
Photo by Hardik Sharma on Unsplash

“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. Not the same.” campaign manifested itself in one primary area of the Android experience, an area that even many Android owners don’t know about — device theming. To those unfamiliar, device theming is the act of altering a phone’s home screen to look the way the user wants it to look. This goes beyond the widgets options and unconstrained app placement that most Android users know about. It’s like taking the screen with all of the apps on it on an iPhone and making it completely custom to the user: creating custom animations, custom app icons, custom wallpapers and custom displays. It was a hobby I really enjoyed, and stood as the main reason I would rather stick to Androids than switch to another operating system. I remember thinking in my younger naivete that the only reason so many people chose iPhones instead of Androids was because they simply weren’t aware of the customization options available on the platform. Because who wouldn’t want to customize their home screen?

A themed Android phone — u/markbasshead on reddit.com/r/androidthemes

Then my own 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 it had to offer, something I’ve done every time I’ve gotten a new phone. The answer: it was good. Better than what I was used to with the launcher that comes with Samsung phones. Google clearly opted for a cleaner approach rather than the abundance of options that Samsung presents. But just like with any new phone I’ve ever gotten, 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 fine; 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 automatically 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 first dropped the physical home button. Whether this was due to incompatibility problems on the part of Nova Launcher, or an unwillingness to cooperate from Google, the navigation on the phone had changed as a direct result of ditching the default Google-made launcher for the third party one. And after some digging, I found that Google’s headlining attempt at navigation controls was only compatible with the Google Launcher, nothing else.

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 an improved version of gesture controls that more closely match Apple’s slick implementation was released by Google and they were great. My navigational experience was better than it had ever been and after Google addressed some RAM management issues plaguing the Pixel, my experience with Android was smoother than it had ever been. But still, I craved a change of scenery where my apps were laid out.

A few months later I jumped into the theming world again, but Nova Launcher had other ideas. This time the navigational experience was even more broken than before. Nova was crashing and sometimes even triggering a full reboot. Bugs like these are expected in beta releases of software, but not in the full release of an app on the latest version of the platform’s software. 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.

Android is known for having a slow rollout for their software updates throughout the vast array of phones that utilize the operating system and app compatibility tends to lag as well. But customization software is something that I always expected to be pretty stable. There were some minor drawbacks that came from using something that the phone didn’t recognize as being native, but it truly was a good experience. But support in both directions has seemingly gotten more disjointed over the course of the last couple of years. Something changed.

And now, ironically, Apple has finally committed to the bare minimum of user customization on iPhone by supporting widgets, an app drawer, hidden homescreens, and custom icons. Although some of these functions work better than others, the result is a move to overlap with Android in a realm that has been dominated by Google’s software since the beginning. The featureset is very much in line with what we’ve come to expect from Apple: restrained and lacking in variety, all in the name of ensuring the user can’t unintentionally customize away the usefulness of their phone’s home screen. But still, Apple steps towards customization as Google steps away from it. And more recently, they seem to have embraced their customizing community by removing a key nuisance to customizing the app icons on the home screen.

The beginnings of customization options on iPhone — Photo by David Grandmougin on Unsplash

And I think it’s a shame for Android. I felt like I really had a voice in the way I interacted with my technology. Android Theming was really what got me interested in UI, UX and digital design more than anything else. The lower barrier to entry when compared to frontend development is something I fear that generations may miss out on. Similar and more advanced customization can still be achieved in different aspects of digital life from custom PC software to Linux customization tools. But the resources and knowledge needed to even get started in those realms is far beyond what Android offered in its peak theming days.

Although Google’s “Be together. Not the same.” motto more likely refers to the platform’s heterogeneous manufacturers, there used to be evidence 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 the act of theming more broadly adopted by their consumers with built-in customization options. Unfortunately, as manufacturers begin to accept and build customization more into their phones, the third-party 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. And if you’re going to choose one company to create a customization platform, most would choose Apple’s methodical approach rather than Google’s less refined one. Maybe more robust and reliable built-in customization will come to Android in the future, but I really doubt that that’s the case. It seems that Google is shifting their focus away from customization and leaning more into the AI tools that its phones have to offer. But, to the same end, Google’s development of their software for their own hardware has always lacked the sort of conviction in direction that Apple offers with iOS, while the rest of the Android ecosystem remains somewhat fragmented because of the many hands that the operating system passes through on its way to Samsung, OnePlus, LG devices and more. Either way, for now Android theming users are stuck with buggy third-party customization options and unfinished first-party ones, with the constant allure of the iPhone in the back of everyone’s mind.

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Jacob Mitchener

Written by

(Mostly) tech writer based in NYC. Other interests include movies, games, music, soccer, and traveling. You’ll find a little bit of all of that here.

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