If you’ve purchased a phone from a wireless carrier in the past year, chances are it came preloaded with an untold amount of intrusive, bothersome bloatware. Undoubtedly, carriers’ affinity for bundling an excessive number of apps with limited, expensive functionality (AT&T’s HTC One, for example, comes with eight different apps that essentially duplicate the functions of system applications, but often require a monthly subscription to use) is unfortunate to say the least. Many wireless operators aren’t keen to take a hint, though, as recently evidenced by AT&T and Sprint’s partnership with web browser company Opera. What do the carriers see as their next big moneymaker? Your device’s stock web browser with an ad-laden toolbar.
Toolbar, you ask? Sadly, that awful relic of home internet’s infancy (and inexplicable magnet to the technologically uninclined) is making a comeback on mobile. Here’s what happened: Skyfire Horizon, one of Opera’s third-party browsers for Android, supports extensions and plug-ins via a framework. Last year, Opera penned a deal with AT&T to begin using this framework to serve ads to phones preloaded with Skyfire Horizon. Sprint soon followed suit, and today expressed intentions to increase Skyfire Horizon pre-installations dramatically by the year’s end.
Sprint released a video detailing how the service works. Basically, in-toolbar ads and banners are available for purchase by advertisers. Companies can even promote applications by paying for an app recommendation pop-up, which sounds more than a little annoying.
If the obnoxious banner ads don’t bother you, perhaps the Skyfire Horizon toolbar’s full capabilities will. For tracking purposes, the share buttons require access to your social networking accounts in order to function. Think that’s bad? It gets worse: according to a report by Geek.com, everything you do within Skyfire Horizon is, when the toolbar’s active, recorded. Advertisers can access browsing and location data, among other records. That’s a system ripe for abuse.
Luckily, avoiding all of the scary Skyfire Horizon toolbar stuff is easy. Several alternative web browsers for Android are available for download through the Google Play Store, many of which probably offer better features and performance than Skyfire Horizon. Until carriers like AT&T and Sprint decide to put user experience first, it seems apps like Google Chrome and Dolphin HD will have to suffice.