To Clean Up Android Smartphones, Take A Cue From PCs

Thursday Jan 19th 2012 by Serdar Yegulalp
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New Android phones are bloated with unwanted apps. Is there no way to avoid the mess?

My Android phone has something in common with my desktop PC. It’s riddled with junk. Apps I didn’t install and can’t get rid of, “skins” that make my phone slower and less stable, and who knows what else—all contributing to the fractured headache that has become life with Android.

The devices we’re forced to use feel like textbooks that have been through five different sets of grubby hands before we even use them.

With my PC, it wasn’t so bad. A few hours of uninstalling and I had all that factory-loaded fluff out of the way. But my phone was another, much more painful story. I say it’s high time we were offered some choices in this regard.

The PC: your pre-loaded digital junk drawer

Most of us ought to be intimately familiar with the PC crapware problem. Most newly-shipped PCs come pre-loaded with trial versions of antivirus programs I will never use, limited-use editions of office suites I don’t need, and multimedia-organizer apps that make me burst into tears.

How many people spend their first day of PC use wading through all this and getting rid of it? Raise your hands.

Why do PC makers inflict this clabber on us? Money. Profit margins on PCs are ghastly slim, and anything they can do to wring a few extra bucks out of the whole arrangement is going to be worth it.

If it means taking money from software vendors to allow trialware or introductory versions of their programs to be pre-loaded into PCs, so be it—even if that, in turn, means a PC which comes from the factory practically sagging with the weight of all that extra bloat.

That said, enough people have made a stink about it that a few PC makers are now offering an alternative: Pay a few more bucks and you’ll get your system without all that preloaded clutter. Friends of mine have been more than happy to pay the extra few dollars for such a machine.

Those bucks ensure the PC will start faster, run better and annoy them less overall—and for most people, a few bucks in exchange for that much more immediately available productivity is a fair deal.

Sure, a smart user can save himself the money by manually removing all that stuff and making his own custom backup image of the system—but most people don’t want to bother. And they’re right not to.

The phone: also crammed with crud

With phones, the situation is even more closed-ended. The vast majority of phone users treat their phone like an appliance: they use it as-is, and don’t think much (if at all) about modifying it save for installing apps.

For the most part the only way to do anything for keeps about the clutter that carriers shoehorn into one’s phone is to jailbreak it or add a custom ROM—and jailbreaking and custom ROMs are for the few, the proud, the absolutely not ordinary users.

Most of what phones come preloaded with amount to three things. The first is carrier-specific software, such as an app that checks your account status and reports back on how many minutes or how many megabytes you’ve used. This isn’t so bad—it’s actually useful, as long as it doesn’t run in the background and gobble up my battery life.

The second is “skin”-type applications—Motorola’s Moto Blur, for instance. I suspect most of these things were created as a way to jazz up Android’s earlier, blander look.

Unfortunately they are more annoying and obtrusive—and inconsistent—than anything else. I hope wider adoption of Android 4.0 and some greater insistence on consistency of interface with Android generally does away with this trend altogether.

And third is invisible, silent, and unremovable stuff (like Carrier IQ, which now seems to be on its way out) that seems tied specifically to the carrier, which needs no further commentary.

You can usually remove apps in the first category. The other two are almost always immutable.

Pay to clean

Barring a jailbreak or a custom ROM, what’s a user to do if they’re faced with a crapware-loaded phone?

Trade it in, I guess, but I’m thinking of long-term solutions. One solution that suggests itself is to use exactly the same approach as the PC makers.

Give us the option to pay a little more—either up front or in the form of a few extra bucks a month—to have a phone that does not have all this stuff wedged into it. Let us pay for the privilege of a phone that is a little cleaner, a little more bare-bones, and a little less their idea of what the phone should be.

Some of this is possible by way of, say, buying an unlocked phone, but the upfront cost on an unlocked phone is so high that it’s no wonder most people shy away from it. The carriers themselves ought to offer us that much more flexibility in terms of what we have to live with on our phones. The first carrier that does is going to get a long, hard look from me about getting my business (assuming it isn’t the one I already use).

On a side note, I’m also hoping more phone manufacturers will do the right thing and make the unlocking of phones something that can be accomplished by the end user via officially sanctioned tools. Custom ROMS and rooting aren’t my idea of an optimal way to cleaning up my phone, but any way to make the process less ornery is welcome.

That said, I see the pay-to-clean option being more appealing to the carriers: it puts more money back in their pocket.

Pay more, get less

Each successive wave of new technology brings us devices that are that much smaller, lighter, more convenient—and that much more directly tied to services and systems without which it’s little more than a Gorilla Glass-glazed paperweight.

I’m not surprised that every company and its brother wants to lose a little money upfront selling us a device, only because they can make it up in spades later on by selling us services through it.

I don’t mind that part. I've learned to live with it as part of the cost of the always-on age. What I do mind is being forced to use a device that was perfectly good before they went and second-guessed what we wanted from it.

As crazy as it sounds, I'm asking for the right to pay a little more to get a little less. But it means less junk … who wouldn't want that?

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