Microsoft and Google cut the crapware, but the odor lingers

Android smartphones and Windows PCs have long been laden with junky apps and promos, but perhaps the end is near

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Google plans to sell Android 5 "Jelly Bean" smartphones made by various device makers this fall as part of its Nexus line -- "Jelly Bean" being the unannounced but widely rumored successor to Android 4 "Ice Cream Sandwich," the unified mobile OS released last November but still absent on most Android devices.

The reason: to push the Android market to a unified, simple platform specified by Google, both to reduce the junkware that carriers and device makers heap on their devices and to reverse the technical and UI fragmentation that bedevils Android today and makes Android look cheesy compared to Apple's iOS.

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On the PC side, Microsoft has quietly launched its Signature PC service at its 16 Microsoft Stores where, for $99, you can have your new PC cleaned of all junk apps, promo apps, and other crapware that Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo, and the rest install. You can also buy Signature PC versions of various vendors' PCs at the Microsoft Store without that crapware for the same price as the PCs with it.

Again, the intent is to reduce the junkiness of the user experience and to improve performance by removing apps that, in the name of branding, replace Microsoft services such as Wi-Fi management with the vendors' own services but do so in a performance-sapping way. The goal is a better out-of-the-box experience à la Apple's Macintosh.

There are two major reasons for crapware:

  • Vendors make extra money selling what are essentially ads in the guise of trialware. On the smartphone side, the carriers have long added their own apps for their high-priced services, such as games, messaging, and navigation. It's an old model on the PC side for Dell, HP, et al., because it helped bolster the razor-thin margins on $600 PCs.
  • Vendors try to differentiate each other on otherwise indistinguishable devices. A PC is a PC, and a stock Android is a stock Android. There may be some hardware differences, but within a price class, they're basically the same from manufacturer to manufacturer. A different skin, such as in the case of Android smartphones, or a few "special" apps, as in the case of both Android devices and Windows PCs, are supposed to tip a buyer toward one manufacturer over the others.

Of course, the truth is that you don't want or need most of the trialware, and in some cases (mainly antivirus apps) you already have it. The "differentiating" apps are usually poorly designed titles that offer little meaningful value. In both cases, they worsen the experience rather than improve it. A great example is the latest Android tablet from Samsung, the Galaxy Tab 2, which uses the poor AllShare and Peel apps to provide awful home entertainment controls.

Plus, ironically, the user only experiences the crapware -- er, "differentiated" apps after purchasing the PC or smartphone; it really doesn't help make the sale, which is allegedly the point of having it. In those cases where it is part of the sales pitch -- such as the Galaxy Tab 2's AllShare and Peel -- the software's poor quality will make the user less likely to buy from that vendor again. In the world of sales and marketing, that's a problem for future sales, and all that matters is this quarter's numbers.

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