Hey carriers, hands off my smartphone’s feature set

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We tend to get a little fussy over carrier bloat, or the pre-installed applications that may come on a number of carrier-specific Android or Windows Phone smartphones. Bloat can and often does come from carriers, partners like Amazon, and even the manufacturer.

For instance, I bought the T-Mobile HTC One M8 just this morning. It comes with five T-Mobile-specific applications I’ll rarely (if ever) use: Mobile HotSpot, My Account, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV, and Visual Voicemail. While it’s mostly minimal, these applications cannot be uninstalled – only reverted to the original versions which shipped on the phone and/or disabled so they will not work and update.

I reviewed the Verizon edition last week; it was far worse. It came packed with Amazon and Verizon bloat: Amazon Appstore, Audible, IMDb, Amazon Kindle, Amazon store, Amazon MP3, My Verizon Mobile, Mobile Hotspot, Verizon Tones, VZ Protect, VZ Navigator, Accessories, NFL Mobile, Games, Caller Name ID, Setup Wizard, Cloud, Slacker Radio, and Visual Voicemail. That’s a total of 19 pre-installed applications that the user cannot remove – at least not without voiding a warranty.

vzw-one-m8-review-bloatWhile the vast majority of average consumers will never think twice about it, a lot of enthusiasts – including myself – have a problem with it.

That said, pre-installed applications are generally the least of the issues which come from carriers getting their hands dirty in the software. More often than not, carriers tend to make things worse. For instance, on the T-Mobile One M8, if you have Wi-Fi Calling enabled and Wi-Fi toggled on, there is a persistent notification in the notification shade which tells you calls will be made over Wi-Fi.

Verizon used to do something similar but even worse: a persistent notification telling you the phone was connected to a Wi-Fi network. AT&T also partakes in these strange, seemingly unnecessary alterations, as does Sprint.

They’re all meant to improve the user experience and cater to the individual carrier networks, yet it often causes more harm than good.

How? How could tiny software tweaks like a persistent notification affect the end user experience?

No, a tiny, persistent notification itself isn’t all that damaging. But the repercussions of all the tiny tweaks have a lasting effect on the device, the user experience, and add so little value to the end product that it’s honestly not worth all the trouble to include the apps in the first place – even more so to disable the uninstallation of said apps.

For one, firmware update approval processes. Frankly, these are out of control, though admittedly not as bad as they were two or more years ago. But the more tweaks the carrier chooses to add to the mix, the worse and more time-consuming the process will be.

Samsung continues to support microSD expansion.

Bloat will always take up precious storage space. No matter how much or how little space the bloat takes up, it’s the users’ storage space and they should have the right to choose what they want to do with it. If that means having the ability to uninstall carrier bloat (like you can easily do with Windows Phone), then so be it. Just don’t load a plethora of occasionally useful applications on the phone – which often overlap core functions of the OS anyway, such as VZ Navigator or Hotspot apps – and lock them on the device.

Storage space is a growing issue, thanks to ever-increasing display resolutions and the plateau of flash storage options. Most OEMs still have yet to move up to a 32GB minimum and something like 19 pre-installed, non-standard applications is not an insignificant amount of storage space involuntarily surrendered, because the carrier thinks you need the applications and services.

In all the smartphones I’ve ever used I can count exactly two pre-installed carrier apps that I’ve actually opened and used: T-Mobile My account and myAT&T.

Point being, I’ve never heard or seen a logical reason for including so many apps – or any at all, really. And with the exception of all the carrier apps, it seems nearly every time a carrier makes a change (like the persistent Wi-Fi notification), the carrier succumbs to the constant complaints from consumers and reverses the changes in the end anyway. It’s futile.

For example, you now get a notification some Verizon Android phones when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network, but you can easily swipe the notification away.

Android 4.4 KitKatThe only way to be 100 percent sure not to ever deal with bloat or carrier-altered software is to buy an iPhone, buy a Nexus device straight from Google, or root your Android device and manually remove the pre-installed apps either through a custom ROM or deleting the APKs from the application directory.

It seems no one likes it when carriers touch the software, yet they’re persistent in reaching deep down into the software and mucking things up. It’s high time OEMs, Google, and everyone else kick the carriers out of the software business – or at least banish their apps to the respective app catalogs.

What say you, ladies and gents? Have you ever found any carrier “bloat” actually useful? What about minor tweaks the carriers may make along the way? If you want to go to bat for carrier bloat, here’s your chance.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+