The Case Against Bloatware

Since the proliferation of the Android operating system in the last year, one of the repeated arguments against picking up one of the many powerful devices released by a carrier are the massive amounts of what’s come to be known as ‘bloatware’ pre-installed on the phones. Every carrier is guilty of this: ringtone stores to pre-installed game demos, every Android device you buy (with the happy exception of a few) will inevitably have some carrier-sanctioned additions.

Just the other day, Mike Jennings from the UK publication PC Pro railed against Vodacom’s version of the Sony Ericsson Xperia Mini Pro which comes pre-installed with a copy of McAfee’s WaveSecure anti-virus software that prompts you to register for its service before you even sign into your Google account. Not only is this an unconscionable UX disruption (especially for  a smartphone novice, at whom that device is aimed) but it contradicts the inherent security of a mobile operating system. Sure, Android is becoming a hotbed of malware activity, but it’s still much more difficult to get infected with a mobile virus than, say, clicking on errant .exe in Outlook.

What this re-inforces, more so, is that carriers and manufacturers alike view Android as the new OEM version of Windows, where they can load a device to the brim with branded, often disruptive software that cannot be removed. This makes it even worse than purchasing a PC from Future Shop and having it pre-loaded with bloatware: on a Windows machine, you can freely remove software from the Control Panel. There’s even an argument that pre-installed software is more allowable on a new Windows PC since the OEM is licensing Windows and including it in the price of the hardware. So too I could buy a copy of Windows 7 separately and avoid the issue entirely.

But Android is free: manufacturers and carriers pay nothing for the opportunity to use the software, and are having a field day partnering with various software firms, be it antivirus, game or music service, to further their influence on our technology habits. Theoretically, then, when we buy an Android phone we are paying for just the hardware (and I suppose, the licensed patents).

Now, Canadians arguably have it a lot easier than their American or British peers: none of the incumbents pre-load their Android devices with disruptive or offensive stuff, opting rather to build their own content services into separate apps. The issue is that unlike on Windows, these applications cannot be removed without some serious software hacking, and many of them autoload with the operating system, affecting performance and battery life.

Further, if carriers choose to bundle third-party applications, which often amount to nothing more than advertisements in application form, the consumer should benefit financially for this. The argument given to consumers is that licensing deals bring down the cost to consumers considerably, but that only benefits those users signing a 3-year contract. Those who choose to pay full price for an Android phone should, by that argument, be allowed to remove that software or have it not shipped on the phone at all.

But whose fault is this sudden emergence of PC-like bloatware on smartphones? The carriers’? The manufacturers’? Or rather, could it be argued that it is Google’s, who leaves the source code available for anyone to modify, for free. But why, then, does the Nexus line of phones come with no carrier- or manufacturer-sponsored bloatware? Google has even taken the defensive tack of marketing the Nexus One and Nexus S devices as “pure” Android experiences, tacitly acknowledging that OEMs and carriers are somewhat tainting what could be a aesthetically-pleasing, high-performing operating system.

Let us remember how Android rose as quickly as it has: without its relatively open nature, which in turn allowed for OEMs and carriers to differentiate remarkably similar hardware, it wouldn’t have received nearly the marketing push as it has. Windows Phone 7, which along with iOS does not allow carrier or OEM modification, has been a market failure so far not due to its inherent inferiority — it is a gorgeous, fast and capable operating system — but because, like webOS it did not receive the marketing dollars that Android, with its oily fingers in licensing and advertising dollars, was afforded.

Personally, I love Android. I love it because of its customization abilities. But I won’t touch a device that I cannot easily root, optimize and ultimately delete whatever bloatware is pre-installed. This is the same reason I love the Nexus S, which not only encourages hacking, but is remarkably usable out of the box, untouched by the carrier or OEM.

So what do you think of the bloatware issue? Does it bother you? Do you go out of your way to remove it, or just accept it as a part of the game?

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