To be sure, some of the manufacturer-made changes are positive, with interesting feature additions like Samsung's "Pop-Up Play" floating video player or HTC's customizable lock-screen setup. And those parts of the software are fine. But the interfaces themselves tend to be cluttered, inconsistent, and less intuitive than what Google provides in its base Android 4.x OS. Ultimately, the manufacturers are depriving users of the progress Google has made, all in the name of "differentiating" themselves. Well, they're differentiating themselves, all right -- by delivering crap-encrusted UIs and disappointing upgrade experiences. It's change for the sake of change and at the expense of user experience.
It's gotten to the point where most reviews of non-pure Android devices now include a disclaimer: "This phone/tablet is good -- but the interface pales in comparison to the pure Android 4.x experience and you're probably not going to get upgrades very often." It's unfortunate that so many device discussions have to have that asterisk attached (and I know I'm far from the only mobile tech reviewer who feels the need to do it).
Quite simply, the majority of manufacturer-made Android modifications have become more of liabilities than assets. And that's a damn shame to see.
Android variety: A more nuanced view
Like I said, that's the story I was going to write. But after mulling it over for some time, I realized it was a rather solipsistic argument to make. Manufacturers have invested far too much in their customized software visions to back down now; unless they see firm evidence that dropping their UIs would benefit sales, they have no reason to re-evaluate. We can talk about it all we want, but it's not going to make an ounce of difference.
As for those sales, one might note that Samsung is indeed selling hoards of devices with its TouchWiz UI while Google is barely making a dent with its pure Android Nexus phones. That's true -- but remember also that Samsung is marketing the hell out of its TouchWiz devices and making them readily available on most carriers. Google's Nexus phones have never gotten that kind of public imaging push or ubiquitous availability; the Nexus 7 is the first device to come close, and by most measures, it's selling quite well.
Anyway, back to the point: Manufacturers aren't going to stop screwing around with Android, and in the grand scheme of things, that's actually okay. Android is open, after all, and part of that equation means carriers and manufacturers can shape it how they want. Personally, I'd rather see companies embracing that openness by doing something innovative with the OS instead of simply jerking around with Google's base interface for no reason -- but hey, it's their prerogative. Call it choice or, if you must, call it fragmentation; for better and sometimes for worse, diversity is a core part of Android's essence.*
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.