Dear Samsung: Software is great, but please hold the bloat

In an open letter to the South Korean phone maker, CNET's Shara Tibken offers the company's new mobile chief some unsolicited suggestions.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
3 min read
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Samsung's early Android smartphones, including the Galaxy S4, included oodles of preloaded, made-by-Samsung apps.

Josh Miller/CNET

Dear Samsung,

Congratulations on the appointment of Dongjin Koh as the new head of your mobile communications business. Judging by his experience in software and services, Koh looks like he will bring a new perspective to creating smartphones.

And let's face it, after two years of declining profits and waning consumer interest, you probably need it.

A stronger focus on software and services makes a lot of sense given Koh's background and what's happening in the mobile industry. There are, at my last count, roughly a bajillion Android smartphones in the market. The only real way to stand out from all the other players is to improve the experience on the phone.

I hope, though, that this direction isn't a return to the days when your custom software and apps ran rampant over Android
. You're going to have to tread lightly to avoid repeating those troubles and to win back your fans.

Remember the Galaxy S4? You probably don't want to, but as a refresher, your former flagship smartphone came packed with scads of apps and gimmicky features. There was Smart Scroll, which shifted pages up and down depending on how your eyes moved. And S Translate, which accomplished the same things as Google's language translation app. As CNET noted in its review of the S4, very few of these additions "stood out as killer, must-have, cannot-possibly-live-without features."

Users have a name for unwanted preloaded apps that can't be removed: bloatware. And boy, was the Galaxy S4 full of it.

It's no coincidence that the S4 marked the beginning of Samsung's two-year decline in operating profits.

Let's look at your track record. There was the TouchWiz "skin" you threw on top of Android. You've steadily scaled that one back with each new device. Your Media Solutions Center business, which was tasked with creating software and working with developers, saw its global operations slimmed down to just the US. Your homegrown operating system, Tizen, has failed to take off, even as the basis of a budget phone. You've killed services like Milk Video and phased out apps like WatchOn, which turns a smartphone or tablet into a TV remote.

That's not to say software and services aren't worthy areas to invest in. And it looks like Koh has the right chops. His experience in software and services is something that's been lacking among Samsung's top management.

The Galaxy S4's software up close

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He helped usher in Knox, the security service intended for business users, and Samsung Pay, which lets people pay at the register with their smartphones. It's encouraging that he played an instrumental role in forming partnerships with Google and Microsoft and in creating the Galaxy S6 and Note 5.

Still, if Koh wants to help you regain your lost dominance in smartphones, he'll have to nail those software and services areas where you've long struggled. That means streamlining the number of apps loaded on each device and making sure the ones you include are easy to use.

By focusing on a few key areas, like mobile payments, you stand a chance at winning back consumers who don't want their phones cluttered with unnecessary apps, especially those hardcore users who prefer the "pure" or unaltered version of Android found in the Nexus phones.

There are examples of features that are useful. Users can turn on the flashlight of Motorola's Moto G smartphone by shaking it or activate the camera by twisting the phone. LG includes a feature that lets users double-tap to turn the screen on and off. All of the actions are simple but useful.

To be fair, you've stripped out a lot of the bloatware already. And features like the ability to access the camera with a double tap of the home key are the kind consumers understand immediately.

You used to operate with a throw-everything-against-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks approach. I hope Koh understands that isn't going to work anymore.