Bloatware, or a rose by any other name3/4/2015
Life is full of add-ons. You make a purchase, and if it’s big enough, some retailers toss in extras. Everything from a side of fries to a new set of tires could be considered an add-on. This same principle exists with tech purchases, but those extras are anything but delicious or useful like fries and tires. No, tech add-ons are generally horrible and come with an equally awful name: bloatware.
It seems bizarre for this to be case, but one of the celebrated bits of news in the Android smartphone world is that the new Samsung Galaxy S6 line will come with only two bloatware applications. I love Android devices and their customization, the widgets and the ease of designing your own custom applications and modifications. However, the major downside is they generally come loaded with unwanted software. If you pick up Samsung’s Galaxy s5 this weekend, there will be scads of applications you don’t care about and can’t remove.
Samsung would wrap these unwanted apps in the flag of useful tools you don’t realize you need, but they are poorly-built translators, voice controllers, media hubs and sport-specific apps. The truth behind bloatware is companies like Samsung are paid to preload your phone with immovable software, no matter if you use it or not. Can’t uninstall TripAdvisor or NBA Game Time? Yeah, that’s because they paid for that. Like it or not, you’re stuck with it.
So why would Samsung suddenly pull an about-face and drop the lion share of your phone’s bloatware? The short answer is Apple. iPhones come with zero third-party bloatware, only a handful of basic Apple-built apps. Mirroring Apple has been one of Samsung’s oldest practices, but if leaving software choices to users helps the company grab market share in a saturated market, then it’s a smart choice.
The long answer is bloatware can be extremely dangerous to a company’s long-term interests. Lenovo, one of the largest manufacturers of PCs, found itself in hot water last month over Superfish, a hidden piece of bloatware that shared user information with other companies. On the surface, Superfish seems routine — you visit a website, that site drops a cookie in your Internet history cache, and suddenly web advertisements start populating with data from those cookies. The problem is that Superfish is a piece of software hosted on your computer that monitors your activities and shares that data with advertisers. In the hacking world, this kind of stealth monitoring is known as a “man in the middle” attack — using legitimate connections to a device to broaden access surreptitiously. You think someone at Lenovo would have read the Superfish description and realized that’s how identities get stolen.
In the days before smartphones, when much of our computing was done online, bloatware was called adware or malware. Adware was software that populated ads in programs to provide extra revenue, whereas malware infected computers through untrustworthy websites and virus-ridden downloads. Back then, the old school remedy for these maladies was to simply reformat your computer and wipe the system clean of unwanted software. Of course, reformatting your smartphone isn’t an option, so for Android users, one of the only options is to break your licensing agreement and “root” your phone. Rooting allows users great access to the phone’s file structure and the ability to install software that force uninstall apps against manufacturer wishes.
Beyond rooting, there’s only one option: Buy a phone that comes bloat-free, which generally means buying an iPhone, because outside of the forthcoming Galaxy S6 and Google’s proprietary Nexus smartphones, Android and bloatware come hand in hand. CV
Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. Follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb.