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Google risks OEM wrath for unified Android UI plan

Insiders say next Android release will focus on making overlays 'irrelevant'

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Conflicts of interest with Android supporters helped kill Google's Nexus One project, but that is not stopping the search giant embarking on another bid to keep Apple-style control of the Android platform. Google is reported to be planning a unified user interface that will be imposed across Android products, ending the fragmentation that dogs the system, but also restricting partners' development of their own user experiences.

Citing "multiple sources close to Google", bloggers at TechCrunch report that the top priority for the next Android update, codenamed Gingerbread, is to homogenize the user experience and address criticisms of fragmentation. This could severely curtail the freedom of licensees to create their own user interface overlays - most famously, Motorola's Motoblur and HTC's Sense.

Cosmetic UI skins will be possible, but many firms are going further and creating their own sub-platforms. Google wants to deter partners from taking this road by making the default experience superior in terms of handset performance. But the skins have been important to help firms differentiate - and, where necessary, as in China, distance the Android experience from Google's own applications.

However, some developers fear they will need to choose between being 'Motoblur programmers' or 'Sense programmers', rather than having their Android apps run entirely unchanged on all the versions. This would create a world more like traditional Symbian - with very different user interface layers such as Nokia Series 60, DoCoMo MOAP, and the now defunct Sony Ericsson/Motorola technology UIQ, all with their own programmer bases.

In the Symbian world, all these three have been donated to the open source Symbian^3 project, though it is not yet clear how prescriptive the Symbian Foundation will be about the user experience.

At the other end of the scale is the fully unified Apple approach, which of course faces none of the dilemmas of the open source world, between unity and freedom of choice The iPhone maker has defended its iron control of its famous user interface on several occasions against companies that sought to impose their own overlays, notably China Mobile.

Google, always looking to increase its personal power over the mobile experience, is eyeing a similar control, say the sources - though it may be swimming against the tide, at a time when even Microsoft, also accustomed to dictate terms for Windows, has been forced to accept third party overlays like Sense for Windows Mobile.

Apple, of course, controls the hardware as well as the software, while Google relies on third party phonemakers to spread the Android word - and competes with them at its peril, as the Nexus One experiment in offering its own-branded hardware highlighted.

According to the TechCrunch report, Google believes proprietary overlays are variable in quality and often slow down the device. It cannot, in the open source world, ban these UIs as Apple can, but it aims to make them "as pointless as possible" by enhancing the vanilla look and feel and ensuring it drives the fastest and most efficient performance for the handset.

However, Apple levels of UI performance are almost impossible for a platform that is geared to a wide variety of devices and vendors, and Google may, once again, be overestimating its own power, and the need for its key partners to differentiate themselves.

Copyright © 2010, Wireless Watch

Wireless Watch is published by Rethink Research, a London-based IT publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter delivers in-depth analysis and market research of mobile and wireless for business. Subscription details are here.

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