Android’s openness is a big reason for its success, but cellular carriers and phone manufacturers often use this openness to make the experience worse for its users. Android’s openness gives carriers and device manufacturers the freedom to do bad things.
The Android platform is successful because carriers and manufacturers are free to produce a wide variety of different devices and customize their software. However, this is also the cause of Android’s biggest problems.
Bloatware You Can’t Uninstall
Like Windows PCs, many Android phones come with bloatware. Bloatware is software preinstalled by the phone’s manufacturer or the carrier the phone is sold on. This additional software ranges from the useful — like some of Samsung’s apps that add unique features — to the useless — like the NASCAR app included on many of Sprint’s phones, which could always be downloaded separately.
However useful the preinstalled software is, there’s a big problem — this software takes up space on the phone. The software is installed to the system partition, where you can’t normally remove it — just like you can’t normally uninstall Gmail and other important apps that come with the Android OS. Bloatware can often take up a large amount of space — Samsung’s 16GB Galaxy S4 only comes with 8GB of usable space because so much space is used by the many apps Samsung adds to their version of Android.
Skins You Can’t Disable
Android manufacturers like Samsung, HTC, and others change the look of the Android operating system, tweaking it to use a different launcher (home screen), theme for included apps, and more. Manufacturers have to modify Android’s code to do this, and they make it impossible to use the default interface if you prefer it.
On a Samsung device, Samsung’s TouchWiz is the only included interface. Sure, you can install a third-party launcher — like the popular Apex Launcher that functions similarly to the default stock Android launcher — but manufacturers deprive you of the choice of using stock Android on your device.
If you really want to use stock Android, you will have to install a custom ROM like CyanogenMod. You’re stuck with the manufacturer’s interface or a third-party one, with no ability to easily disable the manufacturer’s custom interface and get Google’s version of the OS if you would prefer it.
Blocked Apps and Disabled Features
Carriers have the ability to block apps from their network on Google Play, preventing you from installing them on your device. Tethering apps are commonly blocked — carriers want you to pay extra for tethering.
Manufacturers and carriers may also disable features — like Android’s native tethering support. In the past, AT&T has disabled the “Unknown sources” checkbox that allows you to enable sideloading, preventing AT&T’s customers from getting apps from unofficial sources like the Amazon Appstore and Humble Bundle. AT&T is currently preventing its users from using Google Hangouts video chat features on its cellular network.
Carriers may also block apps like Google Wallet, as they would rather their customers not use a competing digital wallet solution while they work on developing their own digital wallet system that will be the only option on their devices.
When you buy an Android phone from a carrier, the carrier often bends that phone to their business model — whether that’s preventing you from tethering, getting apps from sources that the carrier doesn’t like, or disabling access to competing services.
Unreleased and Delayed Updates
Manufacturers produce an endless variety of different smartphones for carriers, who often insist on having exclusive smartphone models on their network. This has improved somewhat with phones like the latest phones in the Samsung Galaxy S and HTC One series. However, the Samsung Galaxy S2 had many different variants — like the Galaxy S II Skyrocket — tailored to different carriers.
The vast amount of different smartphones manufacturers and carriers need to support leads to a lack of Android updates and delays when updates do make their way to devices. Manufacturers have to produce updates tailored to every individual phone, and carriers have to approve them — so both parties often don’t bother.
This results in flagship phones like the HTC only receiving a few updates, lower end phones never receiving updates, and delays while updates make their way to even high-end, recent phones. As a bonus for carriers and manufacturers, this causes a phone to feel outdated before its time, encouraging a carrier’s customers to upgrade to an expensive new smartphone and lock themselves into a new contract.
Tweaks That Make Android Unstable
As part of their skinning Android and modifying its software to work differently, manufacturers can introduce instability and make Android worse. For example, many reviewers have complained that the Gallery app on the HTC One crashes frequently — HTC made some sort of change to Android and made this normally stable app unstable on their phone. Google can’t fix this, as the Gallery app is included with Android and HTC modified it — HTC needs to identify the bug they introduced and fix it.
Locked Phones That Can’t Be Used on Other Networks
It’s an old story by now, going back to the time before smartphones, but carriers often “lock” their phones to prevent them from being used on other networks. You may have purchased that new phone and locked yourself into a two-year contract, but don’t expect to take that phone with you to another network. The carrier treats it as their phone, bound to their network.
You may be able to have the carrier unlock your phone, but they may only do this after your contract is up. You may want to unlock that phone you paid for without your carrier’s permission — but unlocking a new cell phone is now a crime under the US DMCA.
Locked Bootloaders Preventing You From Installing Your Own OS
Android phones — even Google’s developer-friendly Nexus phones — ship with locked bootloaders. The locked bootloader will only boot an approved OS, ensuring that the operating system can’t be tampered with without your knowledge.
On a Nexus device or another phone with an unlockable bootloader, you can choose to unlock your bootloader, which allows you to install another operating system, like the CyanogenMod distribution of Android or even Ubuntu for phones. These are often referred to as custom ROMs. However, unlocking your bootloader in these ways will usually void your warranty — that’s what the smartphone manufacturers often claim, anyway.
Some carriers and manufacturers ship their phones with no way to unlock the bootloader, depriving you of the choice to use a custom ROM — which means you can’t install CyanogenMod to get a more recent version of Android after they stop updating your device, for example. Unlocking your bootloader may still be possible, but may be more work, often involving running a tool that exploits a security vulnerability in Android to gain access. People have to go out of their way to discover these security vulnerability so newer phones can be unlocked and rooted.
Carriers and manufacturers often make their phones uglier with branding, too — Verizon places their “Verizon” logo across the Galaxy Note 2′s home button, just so you know who your device really belongs to.
Chris Hoffman is a technology writer and all-around computer geek. He's as at home using the Linux terminal as he is digging into the Windows registry. Connect with him on Google+.
- Published 05/23/13