Author(s): Peter Bryer
Many smartphones have bloatware — pre-installed apps with marginal usefulness (sometimes called Potentially Unwanted Programs or PUPs). Device makers are able to generate revenue from the process, subsidising hardware costs by charging app makers and service providers. The volume of these apps is close to crossing a line, but this hasn't really been defined yet.
Now the Shanghai Consumer Rights Protection Commission, a regional Chinese consumer watchdog group, is suing Oppo and Samsung for pre-installing bloatware. The case has the potential to affect smartphone business models across China, and draws attention to the problem. The ability to charge for pre-installing applications means manufacturers can sell devices at thin margins. Some of the apps support ad-generation models, and others work on a freemium or trial basis.
The Commission examined 20 smartphone models between the two brands, and found that many potentially unwanted apps couldn't be removed. Some even ran in the background and used bandwidth, potentially incurring data fees. Many of the smartphones inspected had dozens of PUPs, and one Oppo model had more than 70 such pre-installed apps.
The Shanghai Consumer Rights Protection Commission hopes the lawsuit will encourage the industry to rein in the abundance of bloatware. Samsung had already stated that it would cut back on the number of pre-installed apps, but the temptation to charge app makers for space increases as average selling prices fall. A brand's value can eventually be damaged if a device becomes a digital Pandora's box, as has proved the case for PC makers.
The investigation is working from consumer complaints, indicating a high level of awareness and dissatisfaction with the practice. Oppo and Samsung were singled out, but aren't alone in using PUPs for revenue generation. The penalties are unclear, but the damage to the brands' credibility is certainly costly, and something other manufacturers should avoid.