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While I've been looking amorously at Android L and Material Design screenshots all week, something has begun to dawn on me: Google is turning stock Android into something it never was previously. Up until now stock Android has just been the bare bones framework that all the essential Android features and settings are baked into. But with what I’ve seen of Material Design so far, it appears that Google is now skinning stock Android themselves rather than waiting for the OEMs to do it.

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At first glance Material Design looks great, but what does it mean for Android? / © Google

There are plenty of stock fans that love the cleanliness, simplicity and speed that the ''pure'' Android experience offers. Then the OEMs come along and cake the purity in so much crap it’s tragic, like an aging stage performer layering on the makeup, hoping to miraculously make what lies beneath look better. But the truth of the matter is that, like the aging thespian, stock Android had begun to look a little worn around the edges and dated.

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Stock Android may look a little uninteresting, but it was always a basic framework to build upon. / © Google

So enters Mathias Duarte with Material Design. Seen as a complete refreshing of the Android interface, Material Design brings Google Now-like cards to the entire Android experience. There’s an interesting mix of super flat and three-dimensionality and app designs and transitions will be unified across the board. With Google taking the lead and dictating the design terms to third-party app developers, Android is about to start looking a whole lot nicer.

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With Android L, we're seeing the Google vision of how Android should be skinned. / © AndroidPIT / XDA

But wait, this is where it gets a little weird. As a fan of stock if I got bored of the rather uninspiring interface I was given by Google, I could, at my leisure, add icon packs, a custom launcher, wallpapers, themes and more. And all of this customization went on top of the cleanest, fastest version of Android available. I didn’t have to worry about manufacturer or carrier bloatware slowing things down or the ugly heavy skins ladled on top of the purity that I then had to try to polish into something I could live with. 

Android L design teaser
Forgive me for saying this, but this more like a manufacturer skin than stock Android. / © AndroidPIT

So what does it mean that Google is redesigning stock Android to have a very particular look? Basically, that Google is skinning Android itself, making it even harder for OEMs to change the look of what Google bakes up. And this is exactly the point. Google wants OEMs to do less tweaking of Android to provide a faster, more Google-approved Android experience to their users. Google has, in no uncertain terms, said that they want to get Android into the hands of everyone using a smartphone. And it’s certainly their version of Android they want to spread, not the OEM or custom ROM versions of it. 

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With more add-on features built in, there's less need to look beyond stock Android. / © Woodblock Without Co.

This is probably why Google has adopted several new features in Android L that come directly from third party apps, custom ROMs and manufacturer tweaks to the core OS. Things like enhanced privacy settings, battery savers and ‘’themed’’ apps are what we used to turn to Android add-ons for. Now they will be part of the core system so there’s already less need for us to go beyond what Google delivers. Google’s stranglehold over Android Wear is another case in point. The Android Wear interface will be the same across devices: other than a few minor hardware-related customizations (like the presence of a heart-rate monitor) the experience will be identical.

android wear developer preview
With Android Wear it doesn't matter which device you have: it's all the same experience. / © AndroidPIT

This is exactly what Google wants: unadulterated Android on every device possible, and this is clearly what they’re wanting for stock too. By making stock Android, like Android Wear, a highly recognizable, pre-themed and unified experience across devices, it makes it increasingly difficult for others to modify it without standing out like a sore thumb. And while a more stylistically unified approach to Android sounds nice, a tightly controlled, centrally designed universal experience starts sounding an awful lot like another OS we don’t normally mention. I'm keen to hear if you think it's all for the best or a bad move.

What do you think of Google’s design overhaul? Is it a much needed change or is Google turning into Apple?


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  • CJ Brown Jul 14, 2014 Link to comment

    I will reserve judgement for when (if) Android L OS arrives on my Moto X ... I personally don't care for the redesigned 3 Menu Buttons

  • I think that Android is becoming more like iOS from starting with a clean unified OS across all platforms and I think this is a great idea. Android will always have custom skins available, icon packs, and launchers; however, by becoming less skinned it will speed up OTA updates and decrease fragmentation though out the market.

  • I don't like this new "material blah blah" thingy. To me, it's ugly. To each his own. And I especially don't like the "Google Now-like cards" all over the place. That thing in particular, I can't stand. Actually, the only thing that I like about android l, actually two things, is a definitive move to ART and those new icons in navigation bar.

    • My1 Jul 7, 2014 Link to comment

      yeah, I dont like that as well, in a similar fashion to the Win7->Win8 where they made everything flat and even killed some choices from us, like chhnaging the font...
      the whole flat thing is completely ugly and I really hate it. when L comes, I hope there'll be roms with a nice GUI, similar like these whole aero programs for win8...

  • You assume it won't be "stock", as in "fast and clean". I find that assumption completely wrong, unless proven otherwise later. In words of Ygritte: "You know nothing!" :D

  • I don't think it is correct to say that Google is killing "Stock android" because what makes some Android version "stock" is the fact that it was made by Google. So whatever Google comes up with, will end up being stock android. Even if they end up looking like Samsung's TouchWiz, it would still be stock because it came from Google.

    It would be more correct to say that it's killing Holo Android. Interesting post nonetheless.

    • My point about ''killing'' is that Google is making stock look like a manufacturer skin, killing the idea of stock as the ''clean version'' of Android before it is cluttered up by OEMs (and now, Google as well). But of course, you're right, stock is whatever Google says it is.

  • DNG Jul 7, 2014 Link to comment

    Interesting article Kris. It is true that its more of an iOS ish approach regarding unified design across the board, but I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. I look forward to a more user friendly and simple android experience. Also I wonder what OEM will do to stand out from the competition, I can't imagine they will all offer the same experience with just different hardware... I guess we'll have to wait and see what they come up with :) I'm just happy to see apple doesn't have the monopoly on beautiful design anymore :D

    • Huh? Everyone has opinions and tastes on this and that, I get that, and I will get over the "I look forward to a more user friendly and simple android experience." (so, it's complicated for you? not user friendly?), but this one "I'm just happy to see apple doesn't have the monopoly on beautiful design anymore :D" I can't actually stomach. Yeah yeah, de gustibus non est disputandum and all that stuff, but to me it seems you got the wrong phone and os.

  • Sounds like they are going like apple. " You will have what WE want you to have, not what YOU want on your OWN device". Stinks to high heaven. Get rid of the bum wear.

  • My1 Jul 6, 2014 Link to comment

    I, honestly hate the flat design, I hope there'll be a way to bring a an interface with nice 3D effects (not animations like hell, but like glowing icons, shadows and such)

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