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

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Because Android and Windows devices rely on licensed software, the manufacturers get to alter the stock experience from Google or Microsoft as they see fit -- a facet of Android's pseudo-open-source nature and a consequence of Microsoft's monopolist past. Most of the time, they pollute their offerings with cheap crapware, often made by software firms you never heard of solely for the purpose of being able to have a laundry list of capabilities on the box, in the description at Amazon.com, or on the placard at Best Buy.

Why are Microsoft and Google now finally taking tentative action? I can surmise there's one basic reason: Apple is beating them in the market, and its deserved reputation for a quality experience is a big reason why. Ironically, Apple is quite good at adding software from which it can make even more money -- such as iTunes, iCloud, and iPhoto -- but users find real value from these apps, so they're not crapware.

To be fair, Google has been uncomfortable with the Android crapware problem -- including all the skins that mess up its UI -- for some time. It used its Nexus brand to offer the pure Google experience as a model, first with the Nexus One, then with the Galaxy Nexus, both made by Samsung. But that high-road approach hasn't done much to stop the crapware trend on the other models.

To be fair, Google's laissez-faire approach has let both Motorola Mobility and Samsung deliver Android smartphones such as the Droid Razr Maxx and Galaxy Note that fill in many major business security gaps and let Samsung bring some meaningful innovation, such as the pen capabilities in the Galaxy Note. The ability for manufacturers to differentiate their Android devices from each other can lead to meaningful value -- but it doesn't happen often.

It happens even less on Windows PCs. Once you get past all the trialware for services you don't need or already have, a PC is a PC is a PC almost all the time. Dell puts in its own network connection manager, which is a support nightmare when something goes wrong, as it fights to the death with the native Windows connection manager. On the positive side, both Lenovo and HP have offered PCs that add capabilities to let IT reduce energy usage centrally, yet without interfering with the user experience or with Windows itself.

There's no easy answer to the crapware problem. Google can tighten the rules as to what is allowed only at the risk of alienating device makers who truly believe their smartphones need to be at least superficially different from the competition. After all, Microsoft has very tight rules for what is allowed on Windows Phones; device makers have only a few models for that platform -- coincidence?

Microsoft has almost no way to restrict what's on Windows 7 and earlier, but it may be able to assert more control in the Metro front end in Windows 8, as it is already doing for the Metro browser. We'll see -- a bad sign is Microsoft's comment that it will offer the Signature PC crapware-cleanup service for Windows 8 when it ships, which means Win8 PCs and tablets will also have crapware.

Ultimately, if Google and Microsoft want the kind of control over the user experience that Apple has, it will need to do what Apple does: Contract out the device manufacturing and stop licensing the OS to others for their devices. It's hard to see either Google or Microsoft make that leap, though the acquisition of Motorola Mobility gives Google a means to do so if it chooses.

Still, I applaud them both for at least offering "reference model" options that keep off the crapware and awkward UIs. I only wish they were more aggressive about doing so.

This article, "Microsoft and Google cut the crapware, but the odor lingers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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