Are Wireless Carriers and Handset OEMs Ruining Android Just Like the PC Industry?

Each new Android software release originates from Google in pristine, clean form. But after the carriers and handset OEMs get a hold of it, are they gilding the lily a bit too much?

Each new Android software release originates from Google in pristine, clean form. But after the carriers and handset OEMs get a hold of it, are they gilding the lily a bit too much?

Yesterday, I was sad to hear that my colleague, Ed Bott, decided to get rid of his brand-new Motorola DROID X after only two weeks of use.

Only two weeks? Wow. I couldn't believe it. After all, by most accounts, the DROID X is by far one of the most advanced and highly-rated smartphones on the market. What could possibly make Ed want to get rid of the thing so quickly?

After all, I'm an Android user -- the owner of an original, almost 11-month old Motorola DROID -- and I still find it to be an incredibly useful, well-designed phone, and now even more useful with the newly upgraded Android Froyo 2.2 OS.

The only thing that could possibly make me give it up is if Verizon gave me the opportunity to buy a newer subsidized-cost model tomorrow, rather than making me wait out my entire two year contract, which is up in nine more months. But listening to Ed's report gives me some pause, even if that upgrade opportunity were to suddenly present itself.

The first thing that Ed cites is heat generation. Fair enough -- this seems to be a problem endemic to the latest generation of smartphones in general, which have 1Ghz processors. And when you have higher clock speed in a microprocessor, you typically have more heat, as well as increased power draw, because more applications and processes are running in the background. Ed also noted that he couldn't go more than nine hours without the battery on his phone running out.

What do I think really happened to Ed? You combine higher clocked processor, bigger and brighter LCD screen, more software processes running in the background, and what you end up with is a fine example of more is less.

[UPDATED, correcting inaccuracy regarding CPUs used in current Droid models.]

Just how did this happen, exactly? The DROID X and the new DROID 2, which is made by Motorola use the 1Ghz TI OMAP 3640 chipset, and are embedded CPUs that are unique currently to some of Verizon's Android phones. By contrast, most of the latest Froyo-generation phones offered by the major carriers use the Qualcomm Snapdragon such as with the HTC designs.

The previous generation DROID used a 600Mhz Texas Instruments OMAP 3430, which although slower, has lesser power draw. Most importantly, though, the Froyo implementation on the original DROID has very little in the way of carrier modifications -- it's about as pure and plain-Jane an Android you're going to get without picking up Google's own developer Nexus One phones.

In the ever-accelerating and escalating Android Smartphone arms race, it's all about who has the fastest phone with the biggest screen and the most amount of memory, because otherwise, there's little else to differentiate the phones. True, network coverage and speed also comes into play, but once you take the carrier and network aspect away from an Android smartphone, all parts considered, they all sort of begin to look the same.

So what do they do to try to make them appear different? They do awful "Value Added" things to Android.

Not unlike how PC's from the major manufacturers have all begun to become commoditized at a certain price point and have been ruined by the exact same kind of "Value Add".

I mean really, if you look at commodity $500.00 laptops or $700.00-$1000.00 desktops that you can buy in retail, other than the logo pasted on the case, assuming the parts that go into them are just about the same, just how much product differentiation are you really getting? I mean an Intel or AMD-whatever 2Ghz processor and Windows 7 with 4GB of RAM and 5400RPM 1TB hard disk is more or less identical no matter which $500.00 computer you are looking at, right?

Also Read: Smartphone Upgrades -- Keeping Up with the Droids and the iPhones (June 2010)

So what did the PC industry do in order to appeal to customers? They bundled the systems with all sorts of crapware and OEM software customizations to try to differentiate their systems. As a result, many people end up getting frustrated and wipe these software add-ons off their systems so they can get as pure a Windows 7 an experience as possible.

But with Android smartphones, you really can't do that. Your only option is to return it and hopefully buy a replacement that isn't as gunked up with carrier or OEM modified gunk as possible.

In the last year since the original DROID with Android 2.x was released, it's been a constant back-and-forth battle between the carriers over who gets the latest HTC or Samsung whatever. And whenever they do inevitably get their version of the HTC or Samsung whatever, they do... Awful. Stuff. To it. And in the case of Motorola and the latest DROID models at Verizon, they've been gilding the lily a bit too much. So much that it's turning sophisticated customers like Ed off.

The phones may be nearly identical on spec, but the carrier and OEM gunk that's on them is different, even though they started out life as "pure" Android 2.2 devices, the way Google wanted them to be.

Sure, if you're particularly adventurous, you can mess with the various alternative Android ROMs modified by the hacker community for your particular model of phone, in order to strip off the gunk and get close to a "pure" Android as possible. I've done it myself experimentally a few times with my own original DROID using DroidMod. Other examples of this include ROMs for other Android smartphones like the popular Cyanogen Mod.

And while it's not that difficult as long as you can follow instructions and have an extra 15 minutes, your average consumer is probably afraid to do something like that.

Android is an excellent smartphone OS and it pains me to see the carriers and the handset OEMs get into a "who can gunk up their phone with more 3rd-party alterations" contest. I'd like to see Google offer a "Stock" Android ROM updater on the Android Market that allows the gunk to get removed easily and painlessly by the end-user and have a purer experience restored, or impose some sort of standardization on the OEMs and carriers that limits what they can do to alter the Android experience on a smartphone or even a tablet platform.

Sounds a bit like... Apple and iOS? Maybe. But I think there has to be a happy medium between total platform control and letting the carriers and the handset OEMs go hog wild.

Hearing of Ed's experience truly disturbs me because when my Verizon contract runs out in nine months, will there be ANY Verizon or competing carrier Android smartphone on the market I'll be willing to upgrade to with all the extra gunk they'll have on the phones by then? I honestly and truly hope so.

Are you fed up with all the extra junk carriers and OEMs are throwing on their latest-generation Android smartphones? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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