Mobility

The secret shame of the Android ecosystem

After using Android Lollipop on both an HTC M8 and Nexus 6, Jack Wallen illustrates how third-party intervention could possibly ruin the end user Lollipop experience.

Android Lollipop

The wait is finally over. After months of checking, one of my many Android devices—HTC's M8—updated to Android 5.0, known as Lollipop. Shortly after that, I was handed one of the coveted Nexus 6 devices. Both experiences were good, but one was clearly superior. Setting differences in hardware aside, I was shocked that the Lollipop "experience" was vastly different, depending on which device I used.

This dive into Lollipop revealed something very clear to me: Manufactures are, in fact, doing Android no favors. I've already posted my take on bloatware, and I stand firm on that with Lollipop. But even minus what most would consider bloatware, manufacturers are robbing consumers of the true Android experience, and Lollipop is a perfect example of that.

Lollipop is supposed to be the biggest leap forward for Android. Magic, I'm told. Unicorns would manage my device, and the joyful tears of angels would flow through the circuitry to make for the single most incredible experience of my digital life. Depending on your device, the reality of Lollipop is not nearly like the fantasy.

Let me explain.

The HTC M8 upgrade came first. After getting the upgrade complete (and then clearing the system cache partition to resolve any lingering problems), everything worked fine. However, everything seemed to be mostly the same old Android. With the exception of the lock screen, notifications, and the app switcher, very little had changed. It was still Android running on the HTC M8. There was little sign of Material Design to be found, and HTC's Sense still had a stranglehold on the interface. Worse yet, there was no sign of multi-user ability (a feature that has been considered a must-have for Android 5.0).

When the Verizon-branded Nexus 6 was delivered, everything changed. First and foremost... wow, what a device. The latest Nexus is powerful, sleek, and every descriptive buzzword you could throw at a smartphone. In fact, if the device weren't so large (it is large), it would already be my go-to device. Setting the power and size aside, the second I fired up the Nexus 6, I realized that this was what the Android experience was supposed to be. Nearly every aspect of the device was touched by Material Design, multi-user support was present, Google Now cards were integrated into the notification system, and so much more.

What I expected was a massive retooling of nearly every piece of the platform. Material Design would bring a totally fresh approach to the aesthetics and interaction of the device. On the Nexus, I got just that. On the HTC M8, it seemed to be the same ol' same ol'. To my surprise, on the M8, Lollipop felt like I'd installed a new lock screen and notification system—and not much more. To compare the difference, take a look at the keyboard for each (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

The HTC M8 on the left and the Nexus 6 on the right.

That HTC keyboard is the exact same keyboard I used when Android was at 4.x. The vanilla Lollipop keyboard (found on the Nexus) is so much better designed and easy to use. In fact, outside of a few changes, the only real difference between the HTC M8 running KitKat and Lollipop was a somewhat noticeable bump in performance.

How could this be? Lollipop was supposed to be the biggest update and change to date for Android. Did I miss something? Did the Verizon-branded HTC M8 get a different update than what everyone else was using? No. The HTC M8 got the update it was supposed to get... only it wasn't (as we've come to experience with nearly every device beyond the Nexus line) a pure Android experience.

Prior to this, I was very much okay with the variations on Android offered by different manufacturers. Now? Not so much. Seeing Lollipop in its purest form against the HTC-ified Lollipop brings to light one very simple truth: Manufacturers are watering down Android in their attempt at making it "theirs."

Stop. Please.

There, I said it nicely. The next time I have to say it, however, it won't be so nice.

Anyone who experiences the jump from KitKat to Lollipop should get the platform I had on the Nexus, rather than the HTC M8. After the very long wait for the Lollipop upgrade, some users are going to be disappointed—not because of what Google has done (because what Google has done is brilliant), but because of what the manufacturers have done to the latest iteration of Android.

This is the secret shame of the Android ecosystem—that a third-party can ruin the platform experience for the end user.

Using both the HTC M8 and Nexus 6 felt like two completely different worlds. On one hand (the M8), I felt like I had the same old Android with a few new bits and pieces. On the Nexus 6, everything (quite literally) was improved and had me instantly saying "This is... wow!"

Had I not been given the opportunity to see Lollipop in its purest form, this would not be an issue. I would have accepted the HTC update as an instance of a platform upgrade that had suffered from too much hype. But the real truth is, the hype was dead on. Lollipop is a major evolution in Android. Unfortunately, only users lucky enough to have a Nexus device in their hands will get to truly enjoy all that Lollipop has to offer.

This brings me back to my point. Google should stomp their juggernaut foot and stop the third-party watering down of their platform. The HTC take on Lollipop goes a very long way to prove that point. Yes, the Nexus 6 and the HTC M8 are worlds apart when it comes to hardware, but the platform they run on should not be vastly different.

What do you think? Should Android stop third-parties from rolling their own —or is Android a better ecosystem because of this type of flexibility? Let us know your thoughts in the discussion thread below.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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