Standard UI 'extremely difficult' to impose on phonemakers

Analyst says any moves to restrict phone manufacturers, which have been differentiating their handsets through customized user interfaces, to uniformed user interface will not be widely accepted. But, one OEM thinks otherwise.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Mobile operating system (OS) makers Microsoft and Google may be contemplating plans to enforce a standard user interface (UI) for phonemakers that deploy their platforms, but such efforts will likely be difficult to impose across the industry, an analyst notes.

Bryan Wang, Springboard Research's associate vice president for Asia-Pacific connectivity and China research, said in his e-mail that OS makers pushing for a standardized UI are doing so to encourage more consumers to use their mobile cloud computing services such as mobile search, e-mail and maps, among others.

However, Wang reckons that platform makers such as Microsoft, with its upcoming Windows Phone 7, and Google with the Android, will find it "extremely difficult" to force hardware vendors to comply with this software requirement. Currently, OEMs such as Sony Ericsson, HTC and LG differentiate their handset offerings by adding a custom layer, or "skin", over the OS that powers their phones.

The analyst explained that Android is an open source platform and phonemakers are free to use the OS however they wish, making it difficult to manage and control the "dozens of manufacturers" using the software. This number does not include the hundreds of Taiwanese and Chinese "shanzhai [or bandit] phonemakers", Wang noted.

Turning to Microsoft, he said the company's "very small market share" in the smartphone segment means Redmond will not have the clout to "force their limited pool of partners to follow its guidelines".

Moves toward a standardized UI will also reduce the device maker's differentiation in the market, he added, noting that standardization efforts will not work unless the OS makers produce their own brand of handsets such as Apple and its iPhone.

"But, for those highly dependent on handset maker partners, standardization will be mission impossible," Wang said.

His comments come after Microsoft had reinstated its commitment to providing a standardized UI for all manufacturers that deploy its OS.

In an earlier interview with ZDNet Asia, Microsoft Asia's general manager for mobile communications business, Natasha Kwan, said phonemakers are encouraged to work with Redmond to create customized, out-of-the-box services in the form of a "live tile" that will sit on its UI. She added that OEM partners can use its application development platform to build customized apps according to their companies' differentiated UI and run it as tiles.

There is further speculation that Google's Android OS may be headed down the same path as its Microsoft.

According to a blog post on tech Web site TechCrunch, Google is looking to put an end to efforts by handset manufacturers and carriers to add their own UI layer on top of Android. Author Michael Arrington said the OS maker is "focusing the bulk of its efforts on the user experience for the upcoming Gingerbread release to counter [bad customized layers]" and make it as pointless as possible for OEMs to create their own skins.

Google earlier declined to comment on speculation over its upcoming Android version 3.0 OS, also known as Gingerbread, which is rumored to be available in mid-October.

Standard to improve user experience
However, one handset maker expressed enthusiasm for Microsoft's plans to push a standardized UI.

Bo H. Choi, vice president and head of mobile communications marketing at LG Electronics Asia, said the Korean manufacturer will move away from efforts to differentiate its phones through customized UI from Windows Phone 7 OS onward.

Instead, LG will set its phones aside from competitors by "providing custom applications that are built exclusively to improve user experience", Choi explained in an e-mail interview.

"Ultimately, customers stand to gain from a standard UI that provides an excellent user experience. This allows users to shift to different mobile handsets without having to relearn how to use the device," he said. "Standardization also creates economies of scale that will keep prices low and [allow] more users to benefit from more third-party developers who can write apps more efficiently by focusing on one UI."

Furthermore, a standardized platform will compel handset makers such as LG to differentiate on device design and style as well as create "sticky" innovations that will help retain its customers, he said.

LG smartphones running Windows Phone 7 will be launched in the fourth quarter, he revealed.

When contacted, Sony Ericsson and HTC declined comment. The Taiwanese phonemaker, for one, appear to be preparing for life after customized UIs are a thing of the past, though.

Last week, HTC unveiled its HTC Sense experience, which was formerly known as the device maker's customized interface layer for its handsets. Following the refresh, the UI has now evolved into a Web site--HTCSense.com--that will deliver new features such as location-based services as well as a series of connected services that are aimed at improving how people capture, create, share and access multimedia content.

"Sense is not a platform, Sense is an experience," said HTC CEO Peter Chou during the company's launch event for its HTC HD and Desire Z smartphones in London last week.

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