Apple’s position in the smartphone industry is an unusual one. The company walked in late on in the game with the iPhone and carved out a huge chunk of the market through a combination of phenomenal design, foresight and simply catching the big players napping.

Since then, it’s become something of a two way fight in the battle for mindshare, with the iPhone and iOS facing off against Android for the hearts and minds of contract customers. And while it wouldn’t serve Android smartphone ballers like HTC and Samsung to imitate Cupertino by serving up just one new phone per year, they could still learn something from Apple: namely, when to say no to networks, and stop them from installing their awful, awful bloatware on board, and staggering out firmware updates.

It’s fair to say that Apple more than any other company has changed how we view mobile phones: they’re not just phones now, they’re mobile computers, and just like the laptop you use at home, you can install updates on them to make them run even faster, and simply get more done.

Even when Apple ruled the MP3 player market in the mid-2000s, I never would have envisaged a time when a firmware update for an iDevice was a huge event. And yet here we are: even incremental updates like iOS 4.1 have the gadget world whipped into a frenzy, while every beta release has iPhone fans hunting through the code for even the slightest whiff of a new model with a new camera, projector or 3D printer.

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Apple’s approach to firmware updates has been monumentally successful. And it’s because it’s handled directly through Apple, with no middle men messing with the brand or timings. Apple tries to deliver ease of use with iOS, and part of that includes leaving absolutely no confusion with updates and when they roll out.

Likewise, Apple doesn’t let networks preload their own software on board the iPhone to keep the experience uniformly seamless (Which is why Vodafone had to release a separate Vodafone 360 app for the iPhone, for instance).

Regardless of what you think of Apple’s walled garden approach to app approval (I think it stunts innovation), this has been for the best. No hiccups, no hubbub. “It just works,” as Steve Jobs would say. There is no other way, because Apple wants it this way, and customers want the iPhone, so the networks can like it or lump it.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the leading Android smartphone peddlers, who cater to networks’ whims, when I’m not sure they need to now that more and more people feel the same way about Android phones. A couple of instances recently have had me convinced of this.

First has been the debacle around Froyo updates for the HTC Desire in the UK. O2 has been mucking around for weeks now, finally releasing the Android 2.2 update to customers, only to yank it again within hours.

Vodafone has already rolled out its own Froyo update, but even it caused a stir when a prior minor update bunged all sorts of nonsense onto the menus and browser bookmarks. Match.com? Why should I be told to go there? The network folks at Voda can speak for themselves, but I’m not single, and I don’t need a shortcut for it on my phone, which would only end up setting me up with other angsty HTC Desire users anyway, and that just wouldn’t make for a good evening. Luckily, Vodafone saw sense and removed these, but it still should never have happened in the first place.

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Android fans in the US will also have been disappointed to read about the Samsung Fascinate, network Verizon’s take on the Galaxy S, this week as reviews began to hit. This version of what we found to be an excellent Android phone has been crippled by Verizon’s move to force Bing as the only homescreen search option, not Google. On an Android phone. You know, Android, made by Google. Google, which makes quite a good search engine.

Now firmware update delays are just about forgivable: network settings have to be tested. We get that to an extent, though since the iPhone lost O2 exclusivity last year, I can’t see that there have been any problems with Apple’s uniform approach. Networks help Apple out here prior to launch, Apple pushes it out. HTC and Samsung could do the same for the Desire and Galaxy S respectively, even if it means holding off for a few weeks on a release for unlocked phones. At least no customers would be left scratching their heads.

But network bloatware is utterly unforgivable, and networks need to stop using this as a way to try and stand out. I cannot think of a single app or service bundled on a smartphone by a network that’s proved useful. Ever. In fact, it’s often detrimental.

Read our HTC Desire Froyo review now

Take the recent LG GT540 phone: on the review sample we tested, Orange had elected to bundle its own apps and mapping software onboard. Not only is this confusing for customers wondering why in god’s name Google Maps has changed colour and feature set, it shows that some networks aren’t even thinking through what they’re slapping on their phones. How did the Orange cloud contacts manager get through testing on the same phone without anyone noticing that Android has wireless contacts syncing built in? It’s careless, and borderline deceitful to customers.

Tyrone, an Electricpig reader, nailed the situation this week in a comment I’ve quoted in full:

“If only the networks could quit buggering about with the software. No one wants the device customised like that, a complete and utter waste of time and designed only to benefit the networks. Every iteration or customisation on any device I have used has been utter crap.

I now get my contracts through either Mobiles.co.uk or Carphone Warehouse who only seem to ship unbranded handsets. Froyo unsurprisingly works absolutely fine in its unfettered state.

If you are thinking of getting a new phone I would recommend moving.”

I wholeheartedly agree – if you’re after an Android phone, try and buy through a reseller who’ll sell you an unlocked handset free from these headaches.

But we shouldn’t have reached this point, and the solution is simple. HTC, Samsung (LG, not so much), you’ve shown you’re capable of creating fantastic smartphones that people are clamouring for. They sell themselves. Take a leaf out of Apple’s book and keep total control of firmware updates for your flagship phones. Roll them out in one go nationwide or even globally. Don’t let networks stick their own software on board.

And networks, give up on adding stuff. Want to stand out? Stop crippling your smartphones, and go make some more enticing deals instead. That Orange Wednesdays thing is alright, I hear. Let’s have more of that please.

  • http://twitter.com/Q_Singh Q Singh

    I agree absolutely, I am already thinking about moving away from HTC to the iphone. All this with froyo has certainly helped push me in the other direction. I am not entirely happy with apple's control but it works. I can remember with any Sony Ericsson I have had before that if I wanted to get rid of something as simple as splash screen i just changed it to my children. Why shouldnt the user have that level of control. It seems like HTC and the networks have this locked down. HTC should only allow an element of tinkering, i.e. the network should only be able to drop their files to a pre-arranged location on the software like you can do with some games and skins, etc.

    • bensillis

      I don't even want that to be honest. HTC is big enough now to call the networks's bluff: if they don't like Sense the way HTC does it, HTC could just sell it through another network. And people will still want it, the company is a household name now.

  • techfruit

    “No hiccups, no hubbub. “It just works,”” – Ummm… NO.
    You obviously didn't try the last update on an iPhone 3G, which still far from works.

    • bensillis

      Fair point. But at least it was still universal and reversible.

      • techfruit

        Yeah I didn't mean to disagree with the general gist of this article – I wish bloatware would be avoided on phones and PCs, and Apple does get that right.

        The reason for the crapware installed on PCs when you buy them is that manufacturers are in a very price sensitive arena and they make a decent amount of money from such installs. The big profits are in the software, and this is how Apple can avoid crapware on macbooks and imacs as they control both the hardware and software on their devices – notably expanding their profit margins.

        I imagine the same is the case in smartphones. Android phone manufacturers are in a feature and price war at the moment – which is great for consumers and progress in general – but does mean that each manufacturer (and network for that matter) will try to make themselves stand out from the crowd with “customisations”. Techie users will notice they are crapware/bloatware, but they might offer features that tempt less geeky types.

        I really really wish they wouldn't add this rubbish to their phones, but I'm not surprised in the slightest and don't see anything changing anytime soon.

        • M Ward

          Doesn't mean we should accept it.

          If people would only buy non-bloatware phones, then the manufacturers and networks might get the message.

          I'll never forget how Orange UK crippled my first ever smartphone (Nokia N91 if my memory is correct). I'd read the reviews on the phone, researched the deals and went with Orange.

          It was only when I got the phone home that I found the damn thing wouldn't do half the things it was supposed to, and was extra crashy to add salt to the wound. All because Orange thought they would replace the system software with a crippled version of their own.

          My next phone was the iPhone, and I haven't regretted that move.

        • M Ward

          My memory did serve me incorrectly, it was the Nokia 6680 not the N91.

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