Android-based smartphones are falling victim to something that has plagued PC users for years: bloatware.
Android phones are being pre-loaded with trial software and apps that can't be deleted off the device by the user. These apps touting mobile TV, football games, location-based search and games are the new face of bloatware, also known as crapware or craplets in the PC world. The term is shorthand for non-essential software or media files bundled with a device in a bid to boost revenue and ostensibly give consumers a chance to try new services.
Samsung's Vibrant phone that launched last week on T-Mobile is a good example. The device includes apps such as Mobi TV, GoGo Flight internet and Electronic Arts' The Sims 3 game. Both Mobi TV and GoGo are applications that require users to pay a fee beyond the trial period. Motorola's Backflip phone, introduced on AT&T a few months ago, includes Where, a location-based service app, and YPMobile, a Yellow Pages app. Even the HTC Evo is packed with programs such as Sprint's Nascar app, Sprint Football and Sprint TV, among others.
"It's different from phone to phone and operator to operator," says Keith Nowak, spokesman for HTC. "But in general, the apps are put there to meet the operator's business and revenue needs."
Nowak's comment is a surprising admission in an industry that otherwise prefers to call the idea of pre-loading trial apps and other non-essential software as a deal designed to help the consumer.
Handset makers have always added skins and custom widgets to Android phones, some of which can affect performance and battery life. But these widgets are usually basic apps such as calendar, e-mail or integrated social-networking feeds. Now phone makers are going a step further to load apps from other companies in a way that prevents users from deleting it completely off their phone without rooting the device - the Android version of jailbreaking a phone in order to gain complete control over it.
The preloaded apps "highlight the key features and performance" of the Vibrant, says a Samsung representative.They are there are to showcase the phone's processor and display, a T-Mobile spokesperson told Wired.com.
But not all Android users are buying it. Some have taken to online forums to vent or find out ways to remove the pre-loaded apps from their phones. In May, The Consumerist published an e-mail from a Verizon subscriber complaining about non-essential software loaded on his device.
"It's a throwback to the days of the feature phones," says Charles Golvin, an analyst with Forrester Research. "Handset makers and carriers would bundle messaging and music clients with feature phones hoping to provide some differentiation. They are now trying that with smartphones."
As far the inability to delete these pre-loaded apps, Golvin says, "I suspect that a lot of operators think consumers won't notice or get to a point where they would want to get rid of them."
Computer makers started the trend of pre-loading software apps, such as anti-virus software, search toolbars, games and internet-access services from companies like AOL. It seemed innocent enough at first: Consumers would get to try new software when they bought their machines, software makers would get a chance to reach new users and PC makers would make some money on the side through deals inked with the software companies to promote their products on the devices.
But soon, many consumers found that these pre-loaded applications made their PCs run slower by increasing startup and shutdown times for their machines and hogging memory. Many of the pre-loaded programs turned out to be trial versions and required users to pay a monthly fee to keep them going. That resulted in a backlash from consumers. Even the Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg railed against bloatware in a 2007 column. PC manufacturers have now significantly reduced the practice of adding bloatware on the devices.
Now, the practice is making a comeback on smartphones.
But bloatware isn't a feature in all smartphones. AT&T has resisted from piling extraneous software onto Apple's iPhone. Motorola's Droid phone ships with just the core applications. Google and T-Mobile resisted the bloatware impulse with the Nexus One.
So, why does bloatware suddenly seem to be multiplying on some Android devices? Android's popularity means every few weeks a new device running the operating system hits the market. Wireless carriers and handset makers see the new devices as an opportunity to generate additional revenue.
"Ultimately revenue from data plans will reach the same level of saturation as voice services. So carriers see some of these services as an additional revenue stream," says Golvin.
Nowak says HTC would prefer to have pre-loaded independent apps in one folder or just in the app store but it's not a decision for the handset manufacturer alone to make. "We have to work with our operator partners," says Nowak. "We would prefer to give consumers a choice or put the pre-loaded in a separate store as it is with some Verizon phones."
If they're lucky, consumers may not have to worry about this much. Golvin says he doubts pre-loaded apps on smartphones will ever reach a similar level of annoyance as they did on PCs.
"The real shortcoming and downfall of the bloatware on PCs was it consumed system resources," says Golvin. "With phones, operators and handset makers understand how precious those resources are."
For now, the bloatware on phone is more about taking up storage space than processing resources. Golvin says he doubts companies like AT&T and Verizon that are locked in a fierce battle for subscribers will go over the line with pre-loaded apps.
"We are in a saturated market," he says. "You can't be cavalier about losing your customers."
Photo: Stefan Armijo/Wired.com