Carrier Bloatware: The Android Plague

It's time to talk about carrier bloatware on smartphones. Actually, it's long past time. You know what I'm talking about: It's all those apps that come pre-loaded on your new phone when you buy it, most of which are trial versions or apps for subscription services offered through the carrier. I had read a little about this problem prior to getting my Motorola Droid Razr Maxx recently, and now I've had the displeasure of a firsthand experience.

I understand the phone manufacturers' and carriers' desire to include these apps on new phones. It's a simple way of advertising additional services they offer (in the case of their own apps) or of collecting a fee from another app publisher for that placement. It's the same thing that's been done on Microsoft and Apple desktop OSs for years. The problem here is that many of these smartphone apps are now being preinstalled in such a way that you, the end user and owner of the smartphone, can't uninstall the app if you don't want it.

This problem primarily affects Android phones currently. Apple has the iPhone ecosystem locked down pretty nicely -- for now -- so that only the basic apps for usability come preinstalled on those phones. With Windows Phones, you'll likely see preinstalled carrier apps; however, I haven't heard of any cases where users weren't able to uninstall those apps if they choose to. And to me, that's the crux of the problem growing in the Android ecosystem: taking away that choice from end users. I might want to use those apps, but if I don't, I want them gone, and gone for good.

So, what's the problem with having these apps on your phone? The first thing people will often complain about is that they're taking up storage memory, and while that's true, I'd say that's a minor problem. Most of these apps are fairly small, with sizes measured in kilobytes or low megabyes. Unless you're taking tons of pictures or video with your phone, or downloading apps like crazy, the gigabytes of storage that come on your phone is probably sufficient. Of bigger concern to me is the background processes these apps can be running, using processing power, battery life, and potentially data.

For instance, on my Razr Maxx, I get a notification every day from the market -- oops, I mean the Play Store (what?!) -- that there are updates available for apps I've never used and have hidden (since I can't delete them). Nonetheless, they're going out and checking for updates, and I have to dismiss this notification every day. I could turn on automatic updating for these apps to avoid the notification, but then they'd be using my data to download an update that I don't want or need. Meanwhile, the market is using my battery life and my processing power to tell me about these apps I don't care about, and I have no way to make it stop. (If anyone has figured out a way to make it do so, please let me know.)

Additionally, it was reported in a study out of North Carolina State University that the preinstalled apps on Android phones can lead to specific security vulnerabilities. Apps require specific permissions to access features or capabilities of the phone. What this research showed was that certain app combinations could "leak" permissions to other apps, which could then be exploited by malicious agents to compromise phone data and user privacy. Essentially, the researchers say this security model is good, but it's flawed in its implementation with some of these apps.

When you think of the use of Android smartphones in business, with phones being supported by corporate IT departments, this problem of unauthorized apps takes on another dimension. Android phones have already gotten somewhat of a black eye for business use. It seems like Google along with the handset makers and the carriers would want to make it as easy as possible for businesses to adopt these phones for their end users. Instead, the inability to control what apps are present on the phone is another point against Android in the enterprise.

As a user, what can you do about the carrier bloatware problem? You do have options, although nothing all that great at the moment. Here are a few things to consider:

  • To start, go into your Manage Apps area and on the Running tab, stop any running process or service for these apps you don't use.
  • You can use the Hide feature so at least you don't have to see unwanted apps. To do so, in the Apps tray, you can touch and hold an app icon until a menu appears; it will either give you the option to Uninstall or Hide (among others).
  • There have been apps available that claim to let you remove or freeze any unwanted apps, although I don't have firsthand experience with any to recommend, and the ones I've researched all tend to have mixed results. Remember that even if you can remove an unwanted app, chances are good that your next system OS update will just reinstall it.
  • You can root your Android phone to gain complete access and control over the OS, and thus the ability to remove any of these unwanted apps. Rooting has benefits that many people highly recommend, but it's not necessarily an option everyone will want to consider.

Of course, you can find more information about these options around the Internet, including YouTube videos.

There's a feature to look forward to in Android 4.0, the Ice Cream Sandwich release. Called a "kill switch" for apps, this feature lets you disable any app, regardless of where it's installed or who installed it. It's not quite the same as removing unwanted apps entirely, but it's a step in the right direction. Of course, my cynical side wonders if it's taking carriers so long to release ICS to current generation phones because they're trying to find a way around this OS-level control first.

When I started thinking about this bloatware problem, I wondered if the carriers might be on the road to class-action law suits. Because they're charging us for their data, and then forcing apps on us that eat into that data, it seems like a perfect case for serious legal action. But then I saw a CNET report yesterday that says the US Supreme Court seems to have decided consumers don't have the right to file class-actions suits against carriers because the carrier contracts say we can't. Score one for big business. You can take your carrier to small claims court or go to arbitration instead.

My previous smartphone, the original Droid by Motorola, didn't come with unremovable bloatware when I got it just over two years ago, which tells me this is a recent and growing problem. I know iPhone owners will be laughing at this Android issue they haven't had to deal with -- although it could still come to iPhones one day. Actually, it's a strength of the Android platform that you typically get many useful apps preinstalled (in addition to the junk). But if I don't want to sign up for Netflix, I should be able to delete the Netflix app and be done with it. (Netflix is the largest of the preinstalled apps, by the way, coming in at over 22MB.)

So you've got some really useful apps from the start. You've got a system that's highly customizable (unlike some other mobile OSs I could name). But the carriers are mucking it up with junky bloatware and taking away much of what has made Android so successful. Do they care? No, I'm sure they don't -- as long as their profits keep rolling in. Do you care? Let me know in the comments section below.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins
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Discuss this Blog Entry 4

on Mar 30, 2012
I think the combined issues on locked phones of unremovable bloatware and lack of updates from carriers is a big problem. I had my Galaxy S for over a year before I got fed up with the performance. Not only did I root it, but loaded a custom rom as the carrier wasn't releasing any updates beyond Froyo 2.2, but I got Gingerbread 2.3. Best decision ever! The phone runs much faster and has improved battery life now. The problem is subsidized phones. People should look for carriers that offered unsubsidized plans (like T-Mobile) and buy unlocked phones that you own and control. If this happened more often, more places would start selling unlocked phones (like regular chains) and via competition, phones prices would come down. Even now, people don't understand that it almost always cheaper in the long run to pay 'full' price for a non-subsidized phone with a non-subsidized plan than to get the typical American subsidized phone.
on Mar 29, 2012
I learned a hard lesson after I bought my Droid Charge. ALWAYS check how much run-time memory a phone has before buying it. My phone, because of the Samsung and Verizon bloatware is only good for people that don't buy apps or those that root the phone and remove the bloatware. I chose the latter.
on Mar 29, 2012
Oh, and three programs. Startup Manager (to limit what runs), Advanced Task Manager (to kill tasks that shouldn't be running), and SystemPanel (the best utility app ever!). 373MB of user run time memory. Just wonderful on the Droid Charge.
on Mar 30, 2012
Thanks for the app suggestions. Ive heard of these before but havent tried them. I probably should. Honestly, as I wrote this article, I had to rein in my desire to rail against the carriers and their evil practices. I firmly believe something needs to be done about this problem, but the carriers have all the power as things stand. Perhaps a groundswell of consumer anger will grow eventually. Well see.

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