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Samsung’s courtroom defeat may push OEMs towards stock Android

Learn to embrace AOSP

Most other Android device makers don’t have the kind of legal resources Samsung does, and it still got seriously smacked down by the court. Anyone that was working on an icon set, app drawer, or anything else that looks like an Apple product will be thinking twice. You could make an argument that a company might flip out and bail on the Android platform, but I think it’s more likely that it would seek safety in the shade of a monolithic Google experience.

After the dust settled and the main players issued statements last week, Google had its say. Google didn’t spend time calling Apple names, or making idle threats. Instead, the Android godfather pointed out that most of the claims made by Apple regarding Android devices have nothing to do with “the core Android operating system.” The implication seems to be that Google thinks it’s the TouchWiz skin that got Samsung into trouble.

Android used to need a lot of modification to be a consumer friendly operating system, but that’s no longer the case. Stock Android is smoother and more intuitive than the skins, especially after Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. I’m not implying that every OEM will just start loading stock Android on their devices, but that skins will have to start taking more from the Android Open Source Project (AOSP).

Google is the party most in the loop when it comes to the core Android codebase. If Apple goes after stock Android, it goes after Google. In fact, Google is taking a more active role in the second Apple-Samsung case because it includes the Galaxy Nexus and makes claims about Android in general. What this potentially leads to is smarter, lighter skins.

Do what you do best, and forget the rest

Just because an OEM might want to stick a little closer to the party line when it comes to software, doesn’t mean everything has to be the same. There is still room for real differentiation without going off the reservation and risking Apple’s wrath. We’ve seen what that gets you, and it isn’t pretty.

The sort of pure Android OS you see on the Nexus devices is closest to the AOSP. There are a lot of things to like here, including the overall responsiveness of the UI and a cohesive sense of design. Still, there are gaps in stock Android that an OEM could fill as a way of differentiating.

You need look no further than the camera to find a place for OEMs to easily make their mark. Android’s stock camera is fast, but it lacks features. Almost every OEM skin does a better job at snapping photos because they license the technology to make that happen. Open source Android can’t legally include this code. Pulling single frames out of videos, extended depth of field focus assist, HDR, improved low light performance, and various types of post-processing are all common in non-stock camera apps.

The home screen is also a part of Android that a phone maker could use to up its game. The stock home screen is lightweight – it does what it has to, but not a lot more. There are dozens of replacement home screen apps in the Google Play store that add functionality without being bloated.

Motorola’s new Android home screen is a good example of how to work with Android instead of against it. The hot-seat (the row of icons at the bottom of the screen) is unchanged from stock, but you can control the number of home screens – an oft-requested feature. The icons have been changed a little, and there is an interesting swipe gesture on some of them that will pop up a related widget.

Adding in unique apps and services could also be a boon to OEMs that cut back on skins. Think of HTC’s Dropbox integration, or Motorola’s Smart Actions settings control app. There is no reason that every icon, widget, menu, and touchscreen behaviour needs to be changed. OEMs can be safer by concentrating on adding value.

The Nexus way

In recent months, there have been rumours that Google is planning to expand the selection of Nexus devices to as many as five, all from different manufacturers. If Mountain View goes ahead with this plan, I’d wager it will see much more in the way of response from phone makers in the wake of the Samsung case. Being part of Google’s premiere phone program is a great way to keep Apple at bay.

There is no reason Apple couldn’t go after Nexus devices – it has attached the Galaxy Nexus to its next anti-Samsung lawsuit. However, doing this consistently will bring it face to face with Google, and Apple most likely doesn’t want that. Google has been acquiring patents all over the industry (most notably from its acquisition of Motorola), and has amassed a nice little stockpile that could cause Apple plenty of hurt.

The Galaxy Nexus trial hasn’t started yet so we don’t know how involved Google will be, but when Android itself is at issue, Mountain View will have to do something. This is the kind of backup OEMs will want to have behind them in case of legal assault.

The recent ruling shows Apple can win on the strength of its patents, and that’s got to be scary for OEMs. But the folks that make your Android phones aren’t jumping ship for other platforms. It was Samsung’s design choices that put it in Apple’s crosshairs. The very different Holo UI used by stock Android gives OEMs a refuge. This isn’t a path to monotonous undifferentiated products, but to smarter differentiation with more involvement from Google.