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. Here are a few of them.
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 some stupid game that could easily 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, especially on phones with limited storage out of the gate, like most budget handsets. Ample storage has long been reserved for premium devices, and that has yet to change.
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 Samsung devices, Samsung’s TouchWiz is the only included interface. Sure, you can install a third-party launcher—like the popular Nova Launcher that functions similarly to the default stock Android launcher—but manufacturers deprive you of the choice of using true stock Android on your device. There are, however, some things can you do to make your Galaxy phone feel a bit more like stock Android—keep in mind, however, this is mostly just a band-aid fix.
If you really want to use stock Android, you will have to install a custom ROM like LineageOS. Otherwise, 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.
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 that, even if you don’t go over the data you’ve already paid for. Again, however, if you’re using a rooted handset, there are ways around that.
Carriers may also block apps like Android Pay or Samsung Pay, as they would rather their customers not use a competing digital wallet solution while they work on developing their own digital wallet system. They’d rather that 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.
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 over the last few years with more manufacturers offering quad-band, unlocked phones that will work on any carrier. That said, the carrier-exclusive handset is still alive and well on most of the networks out there.
Still, when it comes to system updates, not only do the manufacturers have to build custom versions of Android for each handset they produce, but the carriers also have to approve said update—this can mean long waits for simple updates, or updates never coming in the first place. It’s the grim reality of system updates on Android, and it’s something that hasn’t changed as dramatically as many have hoped it would over the last half-decade.
This results in many flagship phones 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. It’s a sick, sad circle.
Android phones—even Google’s open and mod-friendly Pixel 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 Pixel 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 LineageOS custom ROM. However, unlocking your bootloader in these ways will sometimes 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. This generally means you can’t install something like LineageOS to get a more recent version of Android after they stop updating your device. 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, which also present an ample number of negative possibilities—like bricking the device, making it completely unusable (which is often permanent).
So, what’s the solution here? Buy unlocked (or better yet, buy a Pixel). Don’t buy from your carrier—buy unlocked, off-contract handsets. If things like bloatware, updates, and openness are important to you, it’s the only way to go.