When Matias Duarte, lead user interface designer at Google, showed off Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich two months ago, he was beaming with pride in his team’s creation. And he damn well should have; Ice Cream Sandwich is a thing of beauty, and may be the first Android version that is the perfect mix of both form and function, the lack of which has been one of the main focal points of Android critics to date.

Ice Cream Sandwich was supposed to be the version of Android that would require little customization by Android handset makers, though that dream was short-lived. Many handset makers are hard at work bringing their custom skins to Google’s latest Android OS, with Samsung this week demonstrating Touchwiz 4.0 running on a Galaxy S II device.

So how does the man behind Ice Cream Sandwich feel about all the custom skins ruining his creation? Surprisingly, Mr. Duarte is mostly okay with it, since Google’s Nexus program is still up on running, giving individuals who want a stock Android experience that opportunity. In a response to a question by Andrew Kameka of Androinica in a recent Google+ hangout, Mr. Duarte had this to say:

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 OEMs 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.

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.

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.Matias DuarteGoogle

As a proponent of a pure Google experience it’s really hard to agree with Matias Duarte on his assertion that he’s okay with custom skins, but I understand that manufacturers want the ability to differentiate their products from the large number of other Android devices on the market today. Companies focus on creating a competitive advantage in their offerings, creating an experience that draws the largest amount of customers to their products (and away from others). Furthermore, handset makers occasionally do come up with pretty cool things that later get incorporated into the next version of Android. I get it. I don’t always like it, but I get it.

The solution that may make everyone (including my crotchety self) happy can be found in the third paragraph of Mr. Duarte’s’ statement, where he talks about how ASUS is handling the custom UI on the Transformer Prime tablet. ASUS has prepared a minimal UI overlay for Honeycomb (and presumably Ice Cream Sandwich) that users can turn off and revert back to the stock Google experience, if they so desire.

If more handset makers approached custom skins like ASUS, allowing users the choice between their custom skin and the stock Android experience, users could get the best of both worlds when it comes to their devices. That said, we won’t be seeing companies adopt this strategy anytime soon, since these companies strongly feel that their custom skins improve the Android experience, rather than detract from it. Guess I’ll just keep dreaming.

What do you guys think? Do custom skins bother you? Do you want companies to provide customers the choice to revert to stock Android if they so desire?

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