As someone is a self-proclaimed phone nerd, one of my favorite things on the internet is the fight of Android vs iOS. Two passionate fan bases that firmly believe that their platform is superior to the other and that anyone that would dare use the other platform is downright inferior. We see this with Apple users mocking Android users for their green bubbles on iMessage and Android users mocking iPhone users for having a lack of hardware options and lagging on features that always come to Android first.
One of the pillars of the argument against iPhone users that Android fans have always relied on has been the lack of customization present in iOS. The grid of icons that are not moveable and gridlocked. How widgets can only be placed on the far left screen of the iPhone home screen. And of course how an Android phone can allow the use of a third-party launcher to completely change the look of the entire home screen, where an iPhone simply cannot. One of the pillars of this customization argument has been the ability to allow the use of third party launcher applications such as Lawnchair and Nova Launcher. However, with the introduction of Android 10’s navigation gestures, it seems that the leverage of Android’s customization superiority might be eroding.
The Glory Years of the Launcher
A few years ago, Nova Launcher was everywhere. Almost anyone I knew that had very little knowledge of Android and phones, in general, was using the launcher. When I asked why they were using it, the answer was usually along the lines that they read an article after getting their new Samsung or HTC phone that using Nova Launcher would make the phone faster. And at that time, this was the case. Nova, in particular, was being updated at a rapid pace through the Play Store whereas TouchWiz or HTC Sense at the time needed to be updated through software updates.
In addition to better software support, a deluge of creative launchers came into existence that changed the way that a phone can look. With something as simple as installing an app, a user could make their Samsung device look like an iPhone, a Windows Phone, or something completely different as was the case with Yahoo’s Aviate Launcher. This offered a level of flexibility that simply was not available on other operating systems. Android fans loved pointing this out to their friends that were using iPhones. This gave an Android phone the ability to never feel stale since there were so many options.
Android device makers took notice of this. They saw many of their users were not using the stock home screen app that they shipped with devices and instead were using third party options. The first step that these companies did to combat this was to make the home screen launcher updateable through the Google Play Store. This allowed these companies to address issues more fluidly without being subjected to the mess of full-scale software updates. In time, manufacturers also started to shift towards a simplification of their home screen layouts.
In the early days of Android, phone makers felt that they needed to add different features on top of Android since the operating system was very bare-bones at that time. So interfaces like HTC Sense, Samsung TouchWiz, and LG Home UX added features that they felt their users would find useful. As Android matured, a lot of these features felt like unnecessary bloat and superfluous rather than useful. These phone makers took notice of this and started to trim down their experiences, focusing on simplicity as opposed to feature cramming.
This started to create a situation where more people were comfortable using the stock launcher from a Samsung, LG, or Pixel since the experience was good enough to use and had minimized some bloat and remained very functional. This started the process of the Android launcher becoming more of a niche feature for people that liked to tinker with icon packs, grid sizes, and widget customization. The launcher went from selling point for Android as a platform to being a tool for the enthusiast only almost overnight.
The Gesture Dilemma
When Apple unveiled the iPhone X, they unveiled with it a new way to interact with an iPhone. Gone was the physical do it all home button and with it was a gesture-based navigation system that was reminiscent of what Palm implemented with WebOS years ago. A swipe up from the bottom of the screen meant going to the home screen, a swipe horizontally allowed the opening of the most recently used app, and a swipe up and hold opened up multitasking. This new way of interacting with an iPhone but the Android world on notice.
Android manufacturers and Google scrambled to institute an answer to this. After all, how could Android compete with the fluidity and modern nature of iPhone navigation with the tired old 3 button navigation system? Ultimately, Android landed on a gesture system that was mostly the same as Apple’s with slightly different gestures for going back. This switch has started with Android 10 and all current flagships from various companies come with support for these gestures out of the box. While there are issues with these Android gestures (namely how they seem to clash with side menus that are very popular on Android apps), this method of navigation seems to be the path forward for UI on Android.
Here is an example of using gestures on an OnePlus device with a third party launcher:
This push to gestures has introduced a new problem for people that use 3rd party launchers. The problem is quite simple, for some reason these gestures do not work very well. At first, they would not work at all, but today there is a sort of reloading that occurs that slows down the experience every time the user goes home (Note: This does not apply to Pixels as this was fixed in a recent update). This is of course quite counter-productive for people that look at an app like Nova Launcher as sort a speed boost for their overall Android experience. This has led many people that use third party launchers (myself included) to just use the three-button navigation system. This has created a dilemma for many Android users: stay stock but have the new gestures or have the customization but have to use the old three-button layout. This choice of compromise is quite foreign to Android users and has taken some of the steam away from the customization argument in phone war discussions.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
As smartphones have matured over the last few years, there is a sort of parallelism between Android and iOS. Both operating systems have settled into what they are going to look like and how they will function. In many ways, this war is one of the services offered as opposed to a user interface or software design. The reality of ecosystem buy-in has never been greater in the decision of platform of choice. Android still has some leverage in regards to some granular customization such as theming and keyboard customization, but the core experience has become a bit more regulated and a lot less free-for-all.
Consider something like the Android lock screen. The lock screen used to have all sorts of differentiation with the ability to customize its appearance and to install a third-party option. Yet with the proliferation of biometric authentication on Android, a lot of these customizing tweaks have gone by the wayside. There has been a rush to simplicity that has led to many Android phones behaving like iPhones in many ways. The continuing depreciation of widgets is another way that Android has lost its customization angle edge in discussions over the superior operating system.
In the push to make Android more mainstream to attract the iPhone user, the platform has lost some of its quirkiness. Some of the weirdness factors that made Android so capable and unique has been taken away in favor of some digital minimalism that exists in the name of good design. I yearn for the days of slapping on a new launcher that would be able to transform the way that I use my phone. These days, a custom launcher just means having a more customized version of the Pixel Launcher.
Consider the top 3 launchers that are mentioned in any “Best Launchers for Android” articles. Generally, all of those lists will include Nova Launcher, Action Launcher, and Lawnchair Launcher. These are all great apps (I use Lawnchair myself), but they also all mimick the look and feel of the Pixel Experience. And this is quite a shame, especially since they cannot leverage the new way of navigating an Android device. It is quite unfortunate, but these sacrifices have been made in the service of mass appeal. The argument in the phone wars now has shifted, and the Android user in many respects cannot speak of vast customization with the same gusto and bravado as before. Instead, maybe they will talk about exceptional zoom lenses or high refresh displays. But the age of the ultra-customized Android phone has long gone, and I am sorely missing its absence.