A few weeks ago, I ditched my iPhone 4S for an HTC One, and now I think the difference between the world’s most popular smart phone operating systems — Apple Inc.’s iOS and Google Inc.’s Android — can be explained with a metaphor about home decorating.
The iPhone is a mansion designed by experts with superb taste. It’s beautifully laid out and all the rooms, wiring, and plumbing work together seamlessly. But once you move in, you can make only the tiniest of alterations.
The designers of Android, and companies such as HTC, which modify that operating system in different ways, don’t have the same skills. But you can trash just about every aesthetic choice they’ve made and renovate to your heart’s content.
Big fan of Breaking Bad? Trick out your Android phone with Breaking Bad imagery, with icons from the periodic table, as featured in the opening of the TV show. Love Scrabble? Your phone can look just like a Scrabble board. An Android phone is endlessly customizable, down to the last pixel.
The problem is that creating the most striking and novel Android looks is a baffling chore, one that requires mastery of software that seems lifted from that Russian space capsule in Gravity. Take a look at the many how-to tutorials on YouTube, where Android theme designers — or themers, as they are known — offer step-by-step instructions so you can replicate their handiwork. It’s so confusing that it’s hard to get to the part that’s confusing.
But a new app, Themer, developed by MyColorScreen, a startup in Irvine, Calif., hopes to bring Android customization to the masses. The idea is to cut out the inscrutable programs and endless tinkering needed to configure a stylish home screen. Users download Themer, which is free, and immediately have a library of smart phone themes, any of which can be installed with a single click of a button.
Hit “apply,” and your phone could, for instance, have the In a Row theme, which is a column of white lettering against a black background, with fonts in the style of a hip restaurant menu. Or there’s Dashboard, a one-stop information hub and control center. There is a “Grand Theft Auto” theme, a Game of Thrones theme, and even one that uncannily recreates the look of iOS 7, in case, for some reason, you want the iPhone look on your Android device.
To anyone who has ever tried the long-way route to installing such labor-intensive designs, Themer feels like a magic trick. Actually, the app took about 10 months of research and software programming by three partners — two from the investment world and one electrical engineer — who studied the Android market in search of a niche.
“We looked at a Web site for Android developers and there was a lot of talk about customization, and how the options that exist today are basically way too complicated,” said Ashvin Dhingra, one of the partners, who previously worked at Citadel, the hedge fund. “We thought there was a big market for customization but it had to be simple.”
The partners bought MyColorScreen.com, a Web site dedicated to Android themes, from a Thailand-based entrepreneur. It was, and remains, an online gallery for an international subculture of designers who dream up and create new looks for smart phones. The site is home to more than 50,000 themes. (Hey, these people are artists, OK?) Some have a distinctly futuristic appearance, as if they were built for robots. Others are designed around a function, like reading Reddit.
The partners have deals with a handful of themers, to put some of their designs on the app; about 90 designs are available now, with more added to the app every week. The app takes all the complex coding that went into the fabrication of each of these gems and translates it one dummy-proof instruction: “Press here.”
Mr. Dhingra and his partners plan to make money by cutting deals with companies that want to be on your home screen. Every theme comes with a set of preinstalled folders and Themer might eventually put Amazon.com, for instance, in a shopping folder, or Evernote in a productivity folder.
“Or you could have a company that wants to promote a movie or a concert and build a whole theme around it,” Mr. Dhingra said. “We’re going to strike partnerships with brands where it makes sense for our users and the brands.”
Anticipating those profits, MyColorScreen pays themers about $50 per theme. That might seem like a pittance, but it’s $50 more than most have been paid in the past.
In daily use, Themer is like a visit to a clothing store where you can try on whatever you like, leave for a few days, and then swap your picks for a new outfit. I used Colorlist, a theme by a Polish graphic designer who works under the name GaRyArTs; it consists of six brightly colored rectangles, stacked one on top of the other. Pressing each rectangle opens a different function — one for the camera, one for the phone, and so on. There are a collection of tiny white icons at the bottom, with links to YouTube and Dropbox and other frequently used programs.
Colorlist looks terrific, and so did a number of other themes I tried out. Each downloads quickly and smoothly, and Themer allows you to select, for instance, which weather app to use when you press the weather icon.
You can also select which type of icon to use with each theme. Unlike on iPhones — where the icons come in exactly one variety — there are scores of different icon packs available for sale (others are free) at the Play store, designed by a host of artists. Every taste is catered to. For instance, the Getaway pack is a homage to ’70s car chase movies. (“Light yellow icons, with scratches, light leaks, and coffee stains!” reads the designer’s description.)
I prefer the Cardstock collection of icons blended with a smattering of Nox. They’re elegantly crafted and easy on the eyes.
Themer, though, has some limitations. (Yes, once you get the bug, even an app that is all about customization seems as if it needs more options.) The lock screen — the screen you see when your phone first powers on — can’t be configured by Themer, because the software does not have the capacity to change it. For now, the look of your lock screen won’t bear any resemblance to the rest of a Themer-ed phone, which is like attaching the front end of a Ford Focus to a Jaguar. It’s a bit off.
But Mr. Dhingra says that coming versions of Themer will tackle the lock screen issue. Which means the app could ultimately offer a wide variety of themes and the capacity to alter those themes to any specifications. The Apple approach — like the cookie-cutter approach to home design — will then seem even duller.
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