I'm lucky enough to get the chance to use and review a wide variety of Android phones. In my gadget-exploring adventures, it's hard to avoid noticing one common and very unfortunate thread:
Nearly every phone is made less appealing because the carrier loaded it down with bloatware.
Bloatware, if you aren't familiar with the term, is all the extra crap companies stuff onto phones -- crap you probably don't need, don't want, and won't use. It's been around since long before the advent of smartphones (hello, Windows), but with Android, the carriers are really starting to get greedy.
Take the recently unveiled Samsung Galaxy S Epic 4G Touch. I've spent the past week getting to know the phone and have generally been quite impressed (see my full review for more). But amidst the device's fantastic features, Sprint has burdened users with 10 pieces of superfluous software -- many of which are unnecessary pay-to-play programs like Sprint ID, Sprint Radio, and TeleNav GPS.
Sprint isn't the only guilty party, of course; pretty much every carrier plays this game. I counted 20 (!) pieces of unremovable bloatware on Verizon's recently released Motorola Droid 3 device. These days, Google's "pure Android" Nexus phones are about the only ones guaranteed to be bloat-free.
Here's the cold hard truth: To carriers, smartphones are more about making money than delighting users. And nothing's going to change that. Bloatware gives carriers a way to squeeze extra bucks out of customers, either by striking deals with developers to have their apps preloaded or by bundling in their own second-rate subscription services in the hopes that folks will sign up. Android's open nature means the carriers are free to modify the software as they see fit -- and let's face it, that's certainly no small part of the platform's appeal to them.
But here's where I think we could reach a more reasonable middle ground: Right now, carriers set the majority of their preinstalled programs to be system apps, which means there's no way for a user to remove them from the phone (short of hacking the device, but that's not something a typical user is going to do). Some of the players are getting a little bit better in this regard -- Sprint has started making some of the bloatware on some of its phones uninstallable, including about half the crap it put on the Epic 4G Touch -- but a half-assed effort here and there isn't enough.
So carriers, hear me out: Keep preloading your wares onto the phones, if you must -- but start respecting your users enough to allow them to uninstall what they don't want. You still win: You can make the deals with developers and get paid for preloading their apps on your devices. You can keep bundling in your own programs and services, too, making sure every user sees them and has the opportunity to sign up for them.
Come on, carriers: Android is an open platform, and that opens it up to a lot of interesting possibilities. Don't take that asset and use it to turn your phones into virtual junkyards. Trust me: A little respect for your customers will go a long way.
[See also: It's time for the baked-in Android UI to die]JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.
Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.