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Debate: Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich Holo themes – too much control or not enough?

Last week we locked horns over the pricing of Windows Phone devices and now we’re ruminating over the design direction Google is taking Android in with its Holo themes for Ice Cream Sandwich.

Android’s four point oh user interface is a futuristic amalgam of strokes and gradients against clean blacks and simple shapes. A handsome, simplistic application of skinny hair-lines and Roboto type is layed against a more dynamic, functional operating system than either Gingerbread or Honeycomb. This all sounds extremely positive, but there is still plenty of room to ask the question, do we actually like Holo?

Ice Cream Sandwich Holo UI Contacts Panel Matias Duarte


No, Holo is a half-arsed bid to Apple-ify Android. We say half arsed because lets face it, it’s simpler but still not as simple as iOS. The typeface, Roboto is something of a Helvetica wannabe, with its comparable tails and curves, but shoehorned distortions where Helvetica should have just been left alone.

Holo’s Tron-like lines and transitions are 1984 going on 2009. Far removed from anything timeless, Holo is firmly fixed in a transient state of fashion that will be changed in no time flat. In contrast, iOS with its simple rules, classical typeface that has stood the test of time and visual principles rife with respect for modernist design thinking lend only to complement the refinement the iPhone’s industrial design imbues.

Holo is a step up from the SNES-esque Gingerbread and convoluted Honeycomb but a far cry from anything iOS has to offer in terms of sheer design sustainability.


Yes. Holo is simply the best that vanilla Android has ever looked. Prior to this we had plain, functional and more than a little boring designs. Now we’ve got something that’s not only practical but it doesn’t look half bad either.

Yes there’s similarities to iOS, such as stacking apps on top of one another to create folders but this isn’t new to Android – Sony Ericsson’s Xperia UI from last year allowed you to do just this.

Android’s very nature means that there’s no one consistent exterior design; look at say the HTC Sensation XL’s body compared to the Sony Ericsson Xperia Arc S. Different screen sizes, resolutions and shapes. So you won’t get that industrial safe house design aspect that you get with iPhones and iOS.

But, ironically, design sustainability is what Holo is all about.

Google is making the Roboto font and the Holo themes mandatory across Android 4.0. Manufacturers that want to customise the Android look and feel can still do so. But if they want access to things like the Android Market and the rest of Google’s apps, then they need to sign up to the Holo charter and include, as a standard, the visual assets of Ice Cream Sandwich.

So while HTC is free to perform its Sense plastic surgery like before, the bones, the skeleton, the ‘building blocks’, as Google calls them, will be consistent.

Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0) Holo building blocks


If everyone’s building structures on top of Android, why wouldn’t you make the building blocks as simple as possible? Lighten the load visually, reduce the base-ROM size, shed some of the personality. Android is turning into the Madonna of operating systems, reinventing itself in every iteration in a bid to stay current, William Orbit today, M.I.A. and Nicki Minaj tomorrow. Android, you’re not Madonna!

Google should pay extra attention to their OEMs. As it stands, stock Android is in visual competition with custom user interfaces made by manufacturers and third party launchers available on the market. It’s a ridiculous situation rife with conflicts of interests. OEMs can’t be sure how they’ll stand come Android’s next evolution and a huge amount of consumer animosity is created by the process of updating despite most front-end Android tweaks not hitting skinned handsets.

There are two ways Google can take this forward:

Close up of a Samsung Galaxy Nexus runnin Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0)

1) Make vanilla Android more utilitarian. Stop reinventing visuals and focus on refining core functions, breaking down visual structures for OEMs to build upon. Get rid of screen transitions and colours. Make Android a bare bones OS of lines, a refined terminal UI for of sorts so it’s clear: vanilla Android isn’t in competition with every OEM skinned version of itself out there.

2) Google decide on Holo, stick with Holo, refine Holo and enforce Holo in a stricter way than they’re doing right now (making the typeface pervade through to the end user isn’t enough). The fact that Holo has a personality (Personality 1) is just annoying when you’re using it on a TouchWiz Samsung phone (personality number two) with ADW launcher laid over it (personality three). Three personalities in one phone (unecessary and messy).

Personally, I’d push for the latter option as I’m a huge fan of many of the functionality tweaks Google have introduced in Ice Cream Sandwich: now there’s only one way to add widgets, change wallpaper, settings are accessible in the drop down bar. I also prefer Holo to Gingerbread as I explicitly mentioned earlier, I just wish I could have as much faith in the juvenile Holo UI as I do in the core functionality of Android. As it stands, it’s just another launcher I have to get used to and will probably seldom see on most phones I use.


Samsung Galaxy Nexus email inbox

With regard to points one and two, isn’t that exactly what Google is doing with Holo? Giving OEMs a framework to build around?

Though the Roboto font would be enforced as a standard, presumably there’d be nothing to stop you from switching out the font like you can do on the Samsung Galaxy S2 – Display > Screen Display > Font Style – where you can change to a variation of Helvetica (Helvetica S), go for the ghastly Comic Sans-esque Choco Cooky or download more font packs from the Market.

With the Holo black and white themes too, I can’t see why Google would prevent devs from making custom colour themes for users to install. Leaked shots and video of HTC Sense 4.0 suggest that in terms of customisation there’s plenty of room for manoeuvre – check out the colours on the Gmail app.

Again, Google has said that with Ice Cream Sandwich you don’t need to have mechanical/exterior keys, but that won’t prevent manufactures from adding keys if they think that their audience wants them. Likewise, Google has publicly called for the death of the menu button, but that’s not to say that every manufacturer will get rid of it.

And if a custom UI ends up with a really ugly and schizophrenic look, then people will vote with their wallets and lessons will be learned. That said, Samsung’s TouchWiz UI generally isn’t regarded as being anywhere near as easy on the eye as HTC Sense (in these quarters at least), but that didn’t stop people buying the Galaxy S2 by the bucketload last year.

And for manufacturers who don’t want to (or haven’t shown any inclinations to) build their own custom skins, like ZTE, then the Holo UI means that at least buyers of these phones won’t be stuck with the boring blandness of the stock Gingerbread UI.


Point taken, I just can’t help but wish Google were firmer in one of those two directions than they appear to be now. There’s no getting away from the fact that having a complete UI underneath a complete UI is detrimental to performance and user experience, yet it will unfortunately be the norm for Android in the foreseeable future with a minority of mobile buyers likely to invest in the Nexus range of handsets.

As an Android user, I want the operating system to thrive. That said, I can’t help but sigh relief when I use the consistent UI of Windows Phone for example. As for iOS, Apple have stuck to a working formula and refined it with stylistic evolutions instead of overhauls across iterations. When it comes to design and UI therefore, while it’s a lazy pun, compared to the competition it’s fair to say Android offering is a bit under-developed, a bit over-looked, a bit… Holo.


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