The less open Apple iOS platform also allows developers to design apps as they see fit, provided Apple's UI guidelines aren't trampled in the process. But Apple doesn't have iOS hardware partners reimagining the basic device interface--which some would argue is for the best--the way that Google partners HTC and Samsung have done.
Despite a marginal edge in openness, Google has recognized that a bit of guidance about Android themes and styles could bring some order to its unruly mobile ecosystem. In keeping with the company's recent UI overhaul of its websites, Google is requiring its hardware partners to include the unmodified Holo theme on Android 4.0 devices--the native theme in Android 4.0 (a.k.a. Ice Cream Sandwich)--for the sake of compatibility.
"Before Android 4.0 the variance in system themes from device to device could make it difficult to design an app with a single predictable look and feel," said Google software engineer Adam Powell in a blog post. "We set out to improve this situation for the developer community in Ice Cream Sandwich and beyond."
[ Find out what may be ahead for Google in 2012. Read Google In 2012: 10 Predictions. ]
Henceforth, devices that ship with Android Market support will be required to include the Holo theme. And that's going to be most Android devices (at least until Amazon ships an Android-based phone), given that Android Market has just topped 400,000 apps, according to Distmo.
For developers, this means that apps written for Android 4.0 can rely on a predictable look and feel even when there's a custom skin. This is helpful because it reduces the amount of testing necessary to ensure that an app will work with a non-standard theme, and it will help apps remain functional in the face of future theme revisions.
Powell is careful to stress that Google isn't trying to limit manufacturer customization, seen in themes like HTC's Sense or Samsung's TouchWiz. He says that the new DeviceDefault theme family allows developers to target the device's native theme while retaining manufacturer customizations designed to override default styles.
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