'Junkware' comes standard on Verizon, T-Mobile smart phones
Remember the golden days of personal computing when you'd bring home that expensive wonder box, remove the machine from its Styrofoam swaddling, plug it in, switch it on and -- hey! What's this?
AOL? Quicken SE? A 3-D chess game with a license that expires after a few plays?
Well, customers who bought Motorola's new Droid X smart phone or Samsung's Vibrant, both of which launched Thursday, may feel a tinge of deja vu.
The Droid X comes loaded with several nonstandard applications for Google's Android, most of which cannot be removed.
Among the phone's so-called junkware is a Blockbuster video app and a demo for an Electronic Arts game called Need for Speed: Shift.
The software from the struggling movie retail chain includes a store locator and a section to download mobile movies from Blockbuster's catalog. This app cannot be uninstalled from the phone's software library using any traditional means. Users can delete it from the home screen, but it lives on -- permanently part of the software embedded on the device.
The EA racing game, which provides limited functionality and a large button on the introduction screen urging players to buy the full version, can be removed.
Skype, which is included with other Android handsets Verizon sells, is a permanent fixture, as is a utility called City ID. The latter program provides location information about phone numbers on the incoming call screen. But it works for only 15 days before asking users to pay $1.99 per month.
Verizon spokesman Ken Muche said the carrier and Motorola "worked together on what apps shipped with phone to give customers a broad feel for what it can do."
[Updated, 9:10 p.m. Muche declined to further discuss any agreements.]
The T-Mobile Vibrant phone from Samsung, meanwhile, has four of these extra apps staring you in the face.
One is the movie "Avatar," permanently loaded onto the device in case you are a giant fan. Another is a live video channel called MobiTV -- good for only 30 days. The third is a link to install an EA game called The Sims 3: Collector's Edition. The last is an outdated version of Amazon's Kindle app.
There's also Slacker Radio, which cannot be used before providing an e-mail address, and a button leading to Gogo Inflight Internet's website, which includes a one-month trial for Web surfing (only on plans that provide the service).
Try as you might, none of these apps can be uninstalled.
"T-Mobile put each of these partnerships into place to deliver a great mobile entertainment experience on the device," T-Mobile spokesman David Henderson said in an e-mail.
[Updated, July 19, 3:29 p.m. Henderson walked us through how some of these files -- not all -- can be deleted from the file system. In the applications menu, open the app called Files. In there, users can navigate the system's tree of folders. When you locate the bits you'd like to remove, hold your finger on it then press delete. If you manage to kill something from the storage card, the icon and launcher still remain in the software.]
Android, an open-source system, is attracting a growing number of developers to build apps. Standing out from the more than 60,000 apps in Google's Marketplace requires some ingenuity -- or at least some good connections.
However, Android isn't the only operating system that's victim to junkware. HTC's HD2, a Windows Mobile phone for T-Mobile, also includes some unusual software picks, including a Blockbuster app.
So who's to blame for this annoying bloat?
"I'd say the carriers might be more nefarious on this than the device manufacturers," said Steve Drake, a mobile analyst for IDC. "The carriers have the final say about what goes on there" because they generally handle promotion, support and distribution of the phones.
The exception to this is Apple, Drake added. Because the company has its own stores for distribution and technical support, the iPhone maker has avoided many of the pitfalls of the standard U.S. carrier-manufacturer relationship.
"What goes in the box is a fight between the carrier and the device manufacturer that you wouldn't believe," Drake said. "A lot of it can be driven from a revenue perspective."-- Mark Milian
Photo: Samsung's Galaxy S Vibrant for T-Mobile. Credit: Mark Milian / Los Angeles Times