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The Angry God of ARPU

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He demands crapware

Ten years ago, I attended a panel of cell phone executives talking about the mobile industry. Yes, it sounds like a snoozer and in many ways it was, but I perked up when a tall nordic man began telling us a story about the Angry God of ARPU.

I was hoping for a classic Norse legend of Valhalla, but instead ARPU stands for "Average Revenue Per User," and it was described as the most powerful force in mobile software. Everybody fears the Angry God of ARPU, the mobile executive said. Carriers worshipped exclusively at his altar and software makers were all supplicants at his church.

Back then, it meant that mobile software was designed for one purpose and one purpose only: to please the Angry God of ARPU by proving that it could make money for carriers in some way and therefore get "On Deck" — preinstalled on whatever the latest flip phone might be. App Stores were just crazy, wild dreams and the idea of open access to the web (instead of WAP) was limited to a tiny cadre of nerds. Dark times.

Then, of course, the iPhone came along. Apple refused to provide the usual burnt offerings to the Angry God of ARPU and proved to the carriers that he could be fed without loading up phones with lots of garbage apps and dirty tricks that made people pay for services they weren't even using. Things got better, even for people who didn't use the iPhone.

But when I look at all of the software that's preloaded on the Samsung Galaxy S7, I think that it's clear that the Angry God of ARPU has woken from his slumber and the carriers are lighting the censers in his temple again.

In their reviews, both Walt Mossberg and Dan Seifert ripped into the GS7 for allowing what has come to be called "crapware." Dan writes "Verizon adds thirteen more apps, including three from Amazon, another text messaging app, another streaming music app, and a navigation app that competes directly with Google Maps." Walt lays out essentially the same argument, then notes issues that are even worse:

The setup process also guided me to using Verizon’s messaging app rather than Samsung’s and a Verizon backup service. It even warned me I might lose important stuff if I didn’t sign up for the Verizon service. At one point, I received a gaudy, jarring full-screen Verizon ad urging me to send retail gift cards via messaging. I also received a notification urging me to let Verizon show me how to speed up visits to its stores.

Verizon even apparently refused to allow Samsung to preload Samsung Pay on the Galaxy S7 — though it can be installed by the user. Neither Samsung nor Verizon would get into detail with me on the thinking behind that decision, but at least the carrier is not blocking it entirely as it did in the past with Google's payment service.

Lest you think that it's just Verizon, it's not. Android Central calls out AT&T for putting a huge and hard-to-dismiss advertisement for its new division, DirecTV, directly in Android's notification area. Both of these companies are pushing new video services that they own (Go90 and DirecTV). And of course there's also the tracking and advertising these carriers are trying to do on the backend.

Crapware is a very old story, so hearing about it yet again with a new phone can sound like mere complaining. Because it is complaining. And it's easy to just blame Samsung for capitulating to carrier demands so that it can get prime placement in those carriers' retail channels. It's easy to tweet:

There are other obvious responses, all of which I've expressed myself from time to time. You write the bi-monthly story explaining to Android users how to disable or delete those carriers apps. You wonder why Samsung doesn't show some backbone like Apple. You explain that Samsung's sales weren't great last year and if it doesn't capitulate to crapware, it will get pushed out for somebody that will. You tell the business story, about how Samsung had to make a deal with the devil and how carriers are desperate to not become the dumb data pipes we all so dearly want them to be.

But if we're going to tell that story, we should be more specific about who the "devil" is. The devil is the Angry God of ARPU. And if these recent numbers from Strategy Analytics that Fierce Wireless recently published are accurate, he is a very angry god indeed.

Data by Strategy Analytics, via Fierce Wireless

Look at the trend line over the past year and a half: down, down down. I'm not saying that overall revenue or profits for these carriers is in serious trouble. And actually, I'm not particularly interested in talking about their financials in the first place — except insofar as they drive these carriers to do things that make the consumer experience worse.

Usually, when I see a big corporation acting badly or stupidly, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt and revert to Hanlon's Razor: "never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." But when I look at the pernicious software that's getting preinstalled on phones these days, the only rational explanation I can come up with is the reverse: it's malice. This is about backroom deals and money. It's about placating the Angry God of ARPU.

I cannot believe that anybody inside either the carriers or the manufacturers really thinks that all this crapware makes for a good experience. I can very easily believe that they hope to entrap some sliver of their consumers into accidentally clicking a button and paying money for a service nobody needs.

For consumers, the best way we have to fight this crapware is to pick phones that opt out of it entirely, to refuse to play the game of buying phones from carriers and only purchase phones that they don't control. That means buying an iPhone from Apple, a Nexus phone from Google, or an unlocked phone directly from the manufacturer.

That's assuming, of course, that you are savvy (and, in some cases, wealthy) enough to buy a phone outright and get it activated on a carrier. It's also assuming that the phone you want to buy is even available unlocked in the region where you live. It might not be — right now Samsung's flagship phone is only available in the US at the temples of the Angry God.

I'm worried that the future software on smartphones is looking more and more like the past, like it did on dumbphones: filled with bad software and worse tricks designed not for us, but for the carriers' profit margin. Now that phones are computers, they're getting filled with the same kind of garbage that PC makers often put on computers. That software preys on people who don't know how to uninstall it or who accidentally click on the wrong thing.

When you pay your wireless bill, you probably have a reasonable assumption that you're the customer. You're not. The real customer is the Angry God of ARPU, and he demands satisfaction.