PALO ALTO, Calif. -- Six years ago, Google launched an unconventional effort to gain a toehold in the growing smartphone business. Rather than make its own phones, the way Apple was beginning to do, the search company decided to make only half a phone: just the software to run the device, not the device itself. Google planned to give its operating system, called Android, to phone makers for free, and it would let them alter the OS in any way they liked.
Google thought that in the long run, the plan would pay off in two ways. First, it believed a free OS would push phone makers to create better Web-enabled phones, and better phones would let people spend more time on the Internet. More time online means more opportunities to use Google's service and see Google ads -- i.e., ka-ching! Android also provided a strategic benefit: If phone makers adopted Google's OS, the search company would retain some influence on the devices people used to get its services. If it weren't for Android, Google's customers would have been using devices controlled by Apple, Microsoft, Nokia or RIM, all of which had incentives to limit Google's reach. Android lets Google control its own destiny.
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The strategy worked brilliantly. Android is now the world's most popular mobile operating system. It's unclear if Google makes much money from Android directly -- by some estimates Google makes as much from ads on Apple's iOS devices as it does on Android machines. But there's no question that Android has helped lower the prices of smartphones across the globe, which can only help Google's ad business. It's hard to call Android anything other than a resounding success.
Well, except for one small thing: Most Android phones are lousy. As part of a New Year's resolution, I promised to trade in my beloved iPhone 5 for an Android phone sometime in 2013. I reasoned that, as a tech writer, I should spend more time with the world's most popular operating system. Phone makers and carriers have regularly sent me Android phones to test out in the past, but I'd never given most of them more than a passing look -- I'd open them up, turn them on, get aggravated by their bad keyboards or poor touchscreens or frustrating add-on software, and I immediately package them up and send them back.
This shouldn't be surprising -- most Android phones are very cheap, and you get what you pay for. Over the last few months, though, I've been testing two of the most expensive, most advanced Android phones on the market, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the HTC One. Actually, I've been doing more than that. I've been using two versions of each of these phones -- the standard phone that you get for $199 when you sign a two-year cellular contract, and a second "Google Play edition," which is a special, full-priced version that features only the essential software you need on a smartphone. (The Play edition HTC one is $599, and the S4 is $649.) I've been switching among these four devices, using one or the other as my primary phone at all times. Except for the brief period during which I tested out Apple's new version of iOS, my iPhone hasn't been charged in weeks, poor guy.
Altogether I experienced the best and worst of Android -- and I saw, up close, Android's basic problem. I'd sum it up as follows. Google makes a fine mobile operating system. Some phone manufacturers make attractive, powerful Android handsets. These phones have the potential to be really wonderful machines, even as great as Apple's flagship phone. But then, at the last second, the phone makers and the world's cellular carriers snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They ruin the phones' potential with unnecessary features and apps that lower the devices' battery life, uglify their home screens, and make everything you want to do extra annoying.
This is one of the most important advantages Apple has over Android devices. When you buy an iPhone, it works exactly as Apple intended; it's never adulterated by "features" that the company didn't approve. But when you buy an Android phone, even a really great one, you're not getting the device that Google's designers had in mind when they created the OS. You're not even getting the device that the phone manufacturer -- Samsung and HTC, in this case -- had in mind. Instead you're getting a bastardized version, a phone replete with software that has been altered by many players along the way, usually in a clumsy, money-grubbing fashion.
I noticed this immediately when I first turned on the Sprint-powered HTC One and Galaxy S4. When you run an iPhone for the first time, you've go through just a handful of steps to get up and running: choose a language, add a Wi-Fi network, and log in to your Apple account. The same is true of the Google editions of the One and S4 -- just a few prompts and you're good to go. But not the carrier versions. I had to sit through more than half a dozen screens. I was pushed to sign in to several social-networking accounts. I had to create accounts with HTC or Samsung's own services. Then, when I thought I was at last ready to start using my phone, another prompt came on the screen to let me know that Sprint was installing some software of its own. After another five minutes, my phone was finally ready to use -- but when I browsed through the menus, there was a whole bunch of software that I didn't need, including apps for Yahoo, Amazon, the NBA, a Sprint app for watching TV, and a White Pages app. Why these apps specifically? Not because Sprint believes that you'll find them really helpful, but instead because it received a promotional fee. Congratulations on your new phone -- now look at all the ads.
• Manjoo is Slate's technology reporter and the author of "True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society." Twitter: @fmanjoo