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Custom UIs on smartphones: Would you? Should you?

After concept photos of a reimagined Windows Phone user interface surface, Crave's chief correspondent revisits an old debate: are custom UIs good or bad?


In middle school, my best friend and I used live by the motto "dare to be different." We were all about expressing our individuality by wearing mismatched clothes and staging silly stunts just to stand out from the crowd, but in the case of tech, can being too different be a liability?

PocketNow recently got its hands on some mockups of a reimagined Windows Phone user interface. The concepts came from an unidentified Nokia R&D senior graphic designer, who now works at Accenture, and are somewhat reminiscent of the experience imagined for some of the company's concept phones, such as the Nokia Gem. That all-touch-screen device changes every time you use a different function.

The former Nokia designer's concept, while unique with its floating icons and artsy background (see the above image), looks confusing and unintuitive, but I'm not here to criticize the design. (It should be noted that the designer did this as a personal project, and though it's certainly not my cup of tea, I applaud her for trying something different. After all, ideas aren't born out of passivity.) Instead, two things stuck out for me.

First, the PocketNow article references a quote from Nokia's Chief Technology Officer Rich Greene that caused a little confusion. The quote is from a talk given at a "Windows Phone Day" seminar back in February 2011, just days after Microsoft and Nokia announced their strategic partnership. "We certainly do, in the context of this agreement," Greene said, "have the right to manipulate the UX, the UI, etc."

This led some to believe that Nokia has the ability to create a custom skin for Windows Phone, but this is not true. A spokesman for Microsoft's Window Phone team confirmed to Crave this week what we were told from the very beginning--that like the rest of the handset manufacturers, Nokia can only customize the OS through hubs and applications, and making any changes to the actual UI is not allowed.

However, for a brief moment I thought, "What if this were true and Nokia could change the Windows Phone interface?" The idea made me a little nervous and brought to mind a topic that's been debated before but has yet to be settled: are custom UIs on smartphones and tablets good or bad?

Samsung's TouchWiz interface is one of many custom skins for the Android OS. James Martin/CNET

It's an issue that comes up most often with Android because of all the custom skins. Unless they're offering a pure Google experience device, manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Motorola, and HTC are free to skin their smartphones and tablets with their personalized versions of Android. On the one hand, there's value in the openness of Android, as it gives companies the opportunity to innovate and hopefully make the OS better.

I also understand why manufacturers do it. With limitations on what you can do with hardware design and specs, tweaking the software is an easy way to differentiate oneself from the competition.

On the other hand, if the UI isn't done well, it makes for a horrible user experience and can complicate things like software updates.

Perhaps learning from other people's mistakes and its own experience with Windows Mobile, Microsoft took a different approach with Windows Phone. The company places pretty strict restrictions on what manufacturers can do with the hardware and software. All Windows Phone handsets must have the three requisite buttons below the screen (start, back, and search) and a dedicated camera button. As I mentioned earlier, Nokia, as well as all Windows Phone partners, can only personalize the software via hubs and applications.

Microsoft argues that this more closed system offers a more consistent user experience, so even if a customer upgraded from one Windows Phone to another, he or she would instantly know how to use it since the UI is the same.

So what's the better philosophy?

Of course, there isn't one definitive right answer. After years of reviewing numerous smartphones of varying platforms, it's a question I still struggle with. I do, however, tend to fall more on the side of having a consistent UI across a platform, with some room for some customization.

I don't want to see the choice and openness you get with Android stymied. After all, custom skins have contributed to some of the great features found on Android today. However, the differences in Android UIs can also be confusing; some just plain stink, and dare I mention the dreaded f word?

In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to root our devices, and there would simply be an option to choose between the stock UI or custom UI. Until this happens, I think there is value in Microsoft's thinking regarding having a universal look and feel across devices. Plus, Windows Phone still offers some customization via its Start screen and allows manufacturers to add their own touches like HTC Hub.

However, my take might differ from yours, so I'd love to get everyone's feelings on this issue. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.