Ban bloatware: We want our smartphones back

Illustration by Kate VandenBerghe

Bloatware. The word itself gives me the chills. It's the bane of every tech user, haunting many desktop PCs, laptops, and tablets. But in my mind, the worst form of bloatware imaginable is the array of uninstallable manufacturer-added apps found on smartphones.

You'll find bloatware on BlackBerries and Windows Phones, but Android phones are becoming the biggest offenders, and Android users are becoming the biggest victims. If things continue down this path, the three-headed monster of bloatware, cheaply made phones, and Google Play malware will prove to be a toxic combination for the Android platform.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the Samsung Galaxy S Blaze 4G, an Android phone on T-Mobile, and the phone scored quite well for its design, display, and performance. But the abundance of T-Mobile- and Samsung-added bloatware dragged the phone's overall rating down. Just from T-Mobile, you got 411, Game Base, More for Me, Netflix, Lookout, T-Mobile TV, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile Video Chat...and the list goes on.

You can't remove T-Mobile Video Chat from the Galaxy Blaze

Some of these "apps" aren't even real; they're just links to app stores or trial versions of services. For example, Samsung's MediaHub, found on many of its Galaxy phones, informs you upon opening the app that you must install a separate app and create an account before you can use it. Really?

To add insult to injury, you can't even remove many of these extra apps. On some Android phones, you can go into your settings and manually delete unwanted apps, but on the Galaxy S Blaze 4G, as far as I could tell, there is no such option for any of the added apps. Unless you root your phone, you're stuck with the bloatware.

Bloatware is evil

Why is bloatware so bad? It goes beyond taking up space on your smartphone and cluttering your screen; some of these apps can make your phone more vulnerable. According to Dr. Xuxian Jiang, an assistant professor of computer science at North Carolina State University and the lead researcher for NQ Mobile Security Center, certain apps that make your phone more "user-friendly" also make it more susceptible to attacks.

"The problem is that these pre-loaded apps are built on top of the existing Android architecture in such a way as to create potential 'backdoors' that can be used to give third parties direct access to personal information or other phone features," Jiang said in a statement.

Carrier IQ, a company that provides diagnostic analysis of smartphones to carriers, came under fire last year after a security researcher discovered that the software was recording keystrokes, browsing history, and other user data. And at the time, Carrier IQ's software was installed on more than 140 million handsets worldwide.

Google has taken some measures to control the influx of carrier and manufacturer-added apps. In the Android Ice Cream Sandwich update, you can disable any application so it doesn’t show up in your apps menu. That’s a nice start to solving the problem, but it isn’t good enough. Disabling the app keeps it from running in the background, but it is still taking up precious space on your phone and can potentially cause system instability.

The much-anticipated Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which was intended to deliver a "pure" Android experience free of manufacturer-added overlays and skins, was still marred by Verizon-branded bloatware. Sprint has promised to reduce the number of carrier-branded apps and make them easier to remove, but that's not the same thing as stopping altogether.

Take a cue from Apple

Google needs to regain control over its platform and take an active stand against bloatware. The ideal solution for consumers would be for Google to go the way of Apple and ban bloatware completely. At the very least, the company could force carriers to minimize the amount of bloatware on phones and allow it to be easily removed.

Microsoft has been criticized for keeping tight control over Windows Phone, but that seems to have kept permanent bloatware to a minimum. Unlike Android, Windows Phone makes uninstalling apps a simple process rather than requiring you to go through a bunch of menus in the settings; the Nokia Lumia 900 for AT&T had its fair share of pre-installed software, but you could easily remove the apps.

When carriers and manufacturers add all this pre-installed, unremovable junk to smartphones, they take ownership away from the consumer. Customization is one of the big draws of the Android platform, and consumers have a bevy of apps available in Google Play that they can add and delete on their own terms. If a phone bought with your hard-earned money doesn't feel like your phone when you take it out of the box and turn it on, it's simply unfair.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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