Crapware on Android: Minor Annoyance or Major Problem?

By Ryan Whitwam

Your new phone is probably stuffed full of junk, and you can't get rid of it.

If you're staring down at a shiny new Android phone, you're probably still glowing with pride. Who'd have thought that you yourself would have the foresight, and overall awesomeness to purchase what is clearly the coolest Android handset on the planet? This wonderful piece of tech is perfect in every way, but just like a new PC there is a little junk you need to remove. In searching for a way to uninstall this crapware, you will quickly come to a realization: it's not going anywhere. Almost every carrier-branded Android phone is shipping with irremovable bloatware, and no one likes that. We mentioned that the ability to uninstall these apps is feature we want, but it's a complicated issue, to say the least. 


The problem is real

Carriers forge deals with various content and service providers to get their apps built into the phone. They will also have special carrier-branded apps built into the experience. The mobile provider would probably call this junk "value-added software." To them, it's not just about making money up front, but offering things they feel will attract people to the phone (and thereby make money). Any sane consumer would like to shake one of these mobile executives by the shoulders and tell them it's not working. If you make an amazing phone, it will be amazing and people will notice. Piling on more and more sponsored software hurts the experience. 

While some people may be able to get over the visual clutter issues, it's going to be a sticking point for some. A phone will come with a particular home screen setup happily displaying all the bloatware, just like when you buy a new PC. The difference is that all you can do is remove the icon. The apps will still be present in the launcher. If you're using an AT&T Android phone, all their AT&T apps will be staring you in the face right at the top of the (alphabetically organized) launcher. 

That means these apps are just sitting there taking up space on the phone's internal storage. Depending on the handset, that could be a big chunk of usable ROM space. This is even more infuriating because the bundled apps often duplicate the functions of standard Android apps. If you're not careful, one of these demo apps could end up tricking you into spending above and beyond what you are already spending on your monthly bill.  

Many of these apps are also poorly coded, and meant mainly as a promotional vehicle. Don't be surprised to see them running in the background when there's no need for it. A well behaved app can do this without hitting your battery or performance, but we'd prefer not to trust these particular apps. 

Lastly, having all these "value-added" apps is going to slow your updates. We already know that running a skinned version of Android will result in a delay in moving to the newest version of Android, but the testing and porting of all this junk software isn't going to help. Apps of any sort can break with a new version of Android, and the carrier mandated ones are no different. APIs and system permissions changes mean all these apps need to be tested and fixed if broken. The delay is already long enough for most users without this. 

The current state of crapware

The Droid X comes standard with the Blockbuster video app, allowing users to download movies and  find retail outlets of the struggling company. Maybe the downloading could be cool? Nope. You're looking at outrageous pricing like $4 for a 24 hour rental, and purchases for as much as $17. This is, by the way, for a file you download to the phone. By all accounts, it doesn't even work very well. There's no streaming option either; you have to completely download the movie before watching it. This is a perfect example of something that a Verizon executive thought could attract people, but all it does is hurt the experience. 

The Droid X also comes with an app for a service called City ID. The app will show you the city and state an unknown call is originating from. The problem here is that this is good old fashioned trialware. After a 15 day trial, the app starts charging you $1.99 per month. Wouldn't it be nice if you could just remove it? We imagine more than a few customers will end up paying for this without knowing what's going on. 

The brand new Samsung Galaxy S variants, the Captivate on AT&T, and the Vibrant on T-mobile are not immune from this chicanery either. The Samsung Captivate is rocking just about every bit of AT&T junk that was ever developed for a feature phone. You have AT&T radio, AT&T Music, AT&T Maps, AT&T Navigator, MobiTV, and so on. MobiTV is a video streaming app with a 30 day trial you have to pay. Also, there are already several ways to get music without AT&T's branded app.

Really, AT&T Maps and Navigator on an Android phone? Google's Maps and Navigator apps work beautifully; there's no need for this duplication of features. AT&T even went so far as to hide the Google Navigator icon. You can only access Google's turn-by-turn service through the regular Maps application. Most users won't be aware of that. Even Boy Genius Report was fooled at first. To add insult to injury, AT&T will charge you $10 per month if you actually use their navigation app. 

The Samsung Vibrant for T-Mobile is also packing some serious junk. One of the most prominent tie-ins on the device is the blockbuster motion picture Avatar. It's pictured prominently on the box, and there is a shortcut to the film that acts like an app. This is all well and good if you want to see it, and it does show off the screen well. But you can't remove it when you're finished. The film is on there forever. Do you really want to see the Avatar link in your launcher a year from now? 

T-Mobile is also bundling MobiTV, just like AT&T. You'll also find the Slacker Radio app, Kindle, and Gogo In-flight Wi-Fi. Kindle and Slacker radio are apps that people might want, but the versions on the phone will quickly become outdated. Unless users know to download the newer version from the Market, it may go un-updated for long stretches.  

widely regarded as terrible. Sprint also includes a turn-by-turn navigation app, but at least they aren't charging for it. The Sprint Zones app helps you find a Sprint store, but all it does is open a webpage where you can input your ZIP code. The Sprint TV app is better than the others, as it does provide some access to full TV shows, but the video quality is bad and it doesn't work over Wi-Fi.  

What to do, and what it all means

If you're just plain fed up with this crapware, you have but one option: root. The only real way to remove most of these apps is to root your phone, which gives you access to the internal storage for app uninstalls. Then you can use ADB or an app like Titanium backup to remove the unwanted apps. Unlike when you buy a PC with junk software, there's no easy way to remove this software. You can always register your displeasure with your carrier, but you're not likely to get far. That, or scrounge up a Nexus One, which is largely free of junk software. 

The bundling of junk software is nothing new on mobile phones, but we had higher hopes for Android. When Android first appeared, it was open and populated with mostly Google apps. Now we're seeing more, and more carrier modification of phones. The original Droid shipped with almost no extra crapware. The trend is moving in the wrong direction. It's not the changes themselves that upset users, it's the fact that these apps cannot be removed. If Sprint or AT&T's poorly coded apps start running in the background, there's nothing you can do but kill the process, or just hope they don't cause mischief.  

We are basically putting up with things from our smart phones that none of us would ever put up with from a computer. Buying a PC with non-removable trialware would be a no go proposition for most people. But for some reason we accept this on smart phones. Apple has used their huge clout to keep their software experience pure, but there's no one to go to bat for Android like that. Google is hands-off with the OS after they ship the code. At this point, we can only hope carriers don't get more aggressive in modifying Android, a la the Moto Backflip. Have you rooted specifically to ditch the crapware?
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