Android Ice Cream sandwich has been described as striking, polished, and the most ambitious reinvention of Android yet, but that’s not good enough for Android phone manufacturers. Companies like HTC, Motorola, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson fully intend to layer their custom experiences on top of Ice Cream Sandwich, much like they have done with previous Android releases.

You might think that would upset Matias Duarte, the man in charge of Android’s user interface development, but he doesn’t seem very troubled by Android device makers changing his creations (on the surface at least).

Duarte recently appeared in a Google+ hangout hosted by The Daily Beast. I was one of the lucky people able to participate, so I posed this question about the heavy customization of Android in the past:

“So much work goes into producing the UI and the changes that you make, and then typically what happens is that the OEM’s put their skins on it and put their own touch. Does it bother you that so much work goes into it and in the end, a lot of consumers don’t interact with the UI as you intended it?”

Here’s a transcript of Duarte’s reply

Well, it would bother me more if we didn’t have programs like the Nexus program. The idea behind the Nexus device is to do exactly that – to give consumers an option to use the baseline work that we do if they choose…the philosophy of Android, the idea that partners can customize Android if they want to, is really important to making Android successful.

I think as we see more and more of the basic UI, the basic operating system – the home screen, the notifications system – kind of meet all of the needs that the customers want, you’ll see that OEM’s invest less time trying to fill in the features maybe that were missing there and more time adding completely new features to differentiate each other. Or taking the baseline Android experience and trying to transform it to create something completely different that is more of a niche product like the Kindle Fire.

And I think that’s good; I’m excited for that future. i hope that with Ice Cream Sandwich, we’ve done a lot to deliver that baseline so that OEM’s are going to feel less like they need to fill in the holes that Android left behind and actually focus on adding value…I think with the new Asus Transformer [Prime], you’ll see that the level of customization they’ve provided on top of the base Android is much less than has been provided in the past. In fact, they even allow you to turn off all of their customizations and revert to the stock Honeycomb UI, which I think is a really cool development, too.

Of course, just days later, we saw a video showing what’s alleged to be a leaked early build of Samsung Touchwiz UX layered on top of Ice Cream Sandwich. It instantly disappointed people like TechCrunch’s Chris Velazco, who weeps at the thought of pristine Android 4.0 being “ruined” by Touchwiz. Instead of advancing Android like Duarte suggests, Samsung appears to take a step back and force ICS into accommodating its existing experience.

In the past, that kind of thinking has led to long wait times for Android updates, and cries of fragmentation. Duarte went on to discuss the F-word that continues to hound Android, saying that fragmentation is “the price you pay” for open-sourcing Android and allowing manufacturers to decide which versions of the software to invest in. Obviously he’d prefer it if phone makers spent less time heavily-customizing Android and more time adding value in a way that encourages more frequent updates, but the end goal of making Android available to as many people as possible takes a priority. Google’s strategy is to work with OEM’s to pledge to update their devices within the 18 month period, as well as keep versions released closer to what OEM’s want to build.

So in effect, the Android that we see today is not an exact picture of the Android that Google wants consumers to interact with tomorrow. Tiny changes and compromises are made in order to make it easier to standardize Android and appeal to OEM’s visions. It’s a collaborative effort rather than Google simply developing software and saying, “Have at it.”

Duarte later went on to explain that while he doesn’t personally follow the Android modding and custom ROM scene, it’s possible that there are influences from the community that make it back to UI conventions of stock Android. There’s also an influence from what HTC, Motorola, and Samsung create.

We always look at whatever [manufacturers] launch but we have to kind of keep ourselves very firewalled. We don’t want to show them what we’re doing before it’s ready and they don’t want to show us what they’re working on before it’s ready. It’s really important for the community to kind of have an even playing field. [Ed. note – that will become critical if the Motorola acquisition is approved]

Individual designers, product managers, and engineers maybe follow one particular mod or OEM more than others, so that becomes part of the gestalt of different ideas that are out there.

It’s always exciting to see when somebody does something really cool, really interesting, and really different. One of the designs practices that we have is that when you start a a new design problem, stop and think, “Ok what’s the obvious way to do this?” And then just challenge designers and engineers to say, “Ok, technology aside – assuming that there’s no limit – what would be the coolest way to do this? What would the most compelling, fastest way to do this?” And let’s see what that would look like the way that nobody else has done this before and then let’s see how close we can get to that.

Thanks to Dan Lyons and Newsweek/Daily Beast for hosting. Here’s an audio of the full hangout if you want to hear everything that Duarte had to say.

Google Hangout 1 by Newsweek Daily Beast

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