Sinking the bloatware ship

Bloatware, the not so loving term used to described software equivalent of spam in our inboxes, software we never asked for but are shoved in our faces and take up space and attention. But while we continually fight off spam with some amount of success, the practice of including pre-installed apps in devices have become so common that most people just shake their heads and shrug their shoulders. Not so the government of China, whose Shanghai Consumer Rights Protection Commission is not only putting bloatware on the hot seat again, it is also, for the first time, putting it on legal notice.

The dangers of bloat

By definition, bloatware already carries a negative meaning, so let's try, for the time being, call it as "pre-installed software" or, as its proponents would have you believe, "added value". These are the apps and programs that everyone in the production and retail chain believe you need and will use, but never have the numbers to back that up. In most cases, the value that gets added isn't for the consumers, it's for the makers and sellers.

Though we admit that some apps that come pre-installed are indeed useful in some cases, it is not just the apps themselves that are problematic but the practices and behaviors, not to mention the negligence, around them are. Let's look at a few recent examples.

The case of the missing 2 GBSony just recently launched the Xperia M4 Aqua, a rather decent mid-range smartphone that you can take with you to the beach with nary a worry. It was no high-end phone, for sure, but it was decent at best. The 8 GB of internal storage was almost sufficient, even if half of it was taken up by Android already. However, instead of the less than 4 GB of space left, the Xperia M4 Aqua was left with less that 1.5 GB.

Of course you probably know the answer by now. Much of the space was taken up by pre-installed apps. To add insult to injury, these apps were baked into the firmware image, which means they cannot be uninstalled. Some can be disabled but they'd still take up space. It gets better. Although Sony initially advertised around 3 GB of left for the user, that number is halved immediately after the first time the user updates those apps.

The case of the mighty fish

Smartphones aren't the only ones plagued by bloat. Even PCs, especially laptops, share in the pain. Given how PCs, particularly those running on Windows, are susceptible to malware, the dangers of bloatware are even more pronounced but also more subtle. Early this year, Lenovo was found to have pre-installed an adware called Superfish on its laptops. If that weren't bad enough, the adware was also discovered to be highly insecure, which practically gave hackers the key to the user's kingdom. This lead to a media frenzy over Lenovo's fishy practice and software. The world's PC maker eventually washed itself clean, but the damage has been done.

Sadly, Lenovo is just one of many who happen to have been caught with its pants down. Thankfully carriers are usually out of the equation when it comes to PCs and laptops, but OEMs still have a handful of wares to install on their devices, and sometimes more effectively hide the fact from users.

These are just of the most publicized cases involving bloatware but they are definitely not the only ones. There is, in fact, even a market that specializes in helping carriers install and maintain bloatware. Unsurprisingly, they do so by bypassing platform security.

Putting devices on a diet

The situation isn't completely hopeless, though it could probably be a bit better. Some manufacturers, even the more notorious ones are taking steps, however small, to curb the bloat. And in the case of Android, users also have other weapons to wield against it, though not exactly easy to hold.

Offloading the weight to Google

Some manufacturers like Motorola, HTC, Sony, and even Samsung just recently, have discovered the joys of putting their apps on Google Play Store, or in Samsung's case, its own app store, instead of including it in the device's firmware. The primary incentive in doing this is for faster iteration of updates. Baking these apps inside the firmware means that, in order to push critical or even interesting updates, they'd have to push a firmware update, which has to first pass multiple OEM and carrier tests. Putting the apps in app stores, they can just update it like any other mobile app.

Sadly, these steps were taken hardly with bloatware reduction in mind. It's only a nice side effect. More importantly, it only addresses apps that are developed and distributed by the OEMs themselves. Apps that come from other partner developers and from carriers still get tacked on and there is little you can do about it.

I am Root!

OK, there's something you might be able to do it, but only if you're running Android and if you're fed up enough to risk the adventure. There are two ways users can fight off bloat, one more drastic than the other, but they both start at the same step: rooting. Rooting is like gaining, rather forcibly, administrator privileges on your Android smartphone or tablet. It gives you (almost) full control of anything and everything that gets installed on the device. Aside from addressing the bloatware problem, root also gives you other cool superpowers, though at a price. For one, you void the manufacturer's warranty (though there might be ways around that), risk running into apps that won't run on rooted devices, or, even remotely entertain the possibility of messing up your device in the process of rooting it.

A more heavy-handed solution would be to install a different ROM, sort of an Android flavor for a specific purpose or made by a specific theme. Almost all custom ROMs don't come with bloatware at all. They only come with the bare minimum, sometimes even too minimal. The downside, you lose every special feature your OEM had in its own Android flavor, some of which, like the S Pen features on Samsung's TouchWiz, might have been worth keeping.

Final words

The tragic story of bloatware is far from over and, while there's a sliver of hope, the future doesn't look so bright. Current business practices, like forming alliances with software vendors for the sake of profit or cost cutting, only encourage the status quo. Shanghai's complaint is a small step forward but it is still a small, not to mention localized, step. Until government agencies and regulators start seeing bloatware as something harmful to consumers, very little is going to change. And without any legal teeth, any admonition would be nothing more than the barking of a dog with no bite.