Android Bloatware

There's been a lot of talk about "bloatware" of late. Some of our doing, some not. And the latest round has started to reach inconceivable proportions.

But just like Wallace Shawn's Vizzini, we keep using that word. Bloatware. And perhaps it does not mean what we think it means.

So what is "bloatware," exactly? Here's how I defined it some time ago in our long-in-need-of-an-update Android Dictionary:

Bloat(ware): Applications — usually unwanted — that are preloaded onto a device. It's a bit subjective as to what constitutes bloatware, and the flip side is that these applications are what allow carriers to sell phones and tablets at subsidized prices.

That definition pretty much holds true today, I think, though I'd probably update it to say that those applications also are customized versions of what you might find in AOSP builds, too, adding functionality and design above and beyond the bare bones versions.

Android bloatware

When we talk about bloatware, we talk about apps that we don't want on our phones, preloaded either by the manufacturer, or by the request of the carrier selling the phone. (At least here in the U.S.) And more often than not bloatware is apps placed onto a partition that we can't get to without root access. And that makes sense. Should the phone be factory reset, they'll be return. No muss, no fuss. We've seen carriers like Verizon experiment with skipping that in-ROM route by automatically downloading and installing its "bloatware" once the phone's connected to the Internet. I'm not crazy about that idea both from a security and control perspective, but I get it. And we've seen Dell offer up a menu of options. Have it install some apps you might want at setup while letting others slide by. That's not a bad feature at all.

And not all preloaded software is bad. I might not ever use the account app that's preloaded by AT&T or Verizon or Sprint or T-Mobile — yes, each has its own — but I'd be a fool to say those apps aren't useful in some respect. I've never used HTC's email app. But that's not to say it's not good, or useful, or that "nobody uses it." (That's a phrase that's automatically incorrect the moment someone mutters it.) Or if you don't use Gmail, then it's bloatware. Same goes for any other apps that are tied to Google services. If you don't use them, then their apps are bloatware.

Chances are you wouldn't actually want a phone that didn't have any apps preloaded onto it.

That's why it's been frustrating to see headlines spurring from this SamMobile piece that say Samsung's is dialing back on the bloatware in the Galaxy S6 and instead loading it up with some Microsoft apps, as if one is any better or worse than the other.

I very much remember the last time a phone came preloaded with Microsoft apps. It didn't end well. (And while that also was a Samsung phone, it's important to remember that Verizon very much was in the middle of that.) That was a long time ago, though, and Microsoft's apps and services have come a long way since then. And we're not going to see a repeat of the Fascinate, which flat-out traded Google's services for Bing. While SamMobile doesn't know what from Samsung has been removed, or what from Microsoft has been added (and in that case, exactly what are we getting so excited about?), it doesn't really matter. If the story's true, you're merely trading one suite of apps for another. Preloads are preloads. Or bloatware is bloatware.

The simple fact is that bloatware is subjective, and it's unavoidable. Some applications will (and pretty much must) always be preloaded. And as a wise commenter recently said, one user's bloatware will be another's favorite application.