The Man on the Bus and the Android Duplicate Apps Problem

On my bus home tonight a man approached many of the passengers and asked them if they knew how to use WhatsApp. It seemed to me that he had learning difficulties, and I asked if I could help. He passed me his phone, and I saw that he was trying to install WhatsApp, so I opened the Play Store, found it, and clicked the button to install it. But it wouldn’t install; the process started, then stopped, without explanation.

I jumped into the settings, and worked out that there wasn’t enough storage space on the phone. It was a mid-range Samsung device, with 8GB of storage, but it came preinstalled with two of everything: browsers, office suites (Google and Microsoft), email clients, photo management… everything. And none of it could be uninstalled.

This is a consequence of Google’s conditions for getting the best from Android: if you want to use Google Play Services—which now brings many core features of Android that are no longer included in the Android Open Source Project—you have to install Google’s core apps. And as Samsung make no money from Google’s core apps, they also install their own alternatives and presumably take payment from companies like Microsoft to also preinstall their software.

What this meant was that, after the core system files and all the preinstalled apps, the phone was left with about 1GB of free storage. And pretty much all of that was taken by Facebook and Messenger.

In the end, I deleted a load of data from Google Maps, which cleared up just enough to install WhatsApp (but may cause him some future problems, for all I know). I only hope he doesn’t want to take any pictures or download music, because there’s literally no storage available to do that.

What a sad, silly, user-hostile situation. Competing business models end up screwing the person that owns the phone, and many people—like Muhammad, the man on the bus—are left with no idea why, or how to fix it.

It was a stark reminder to me of how much is taken for granted when the needs of business are put above the needs of people.

Also published on Medium.