If you’ve ever bought a new PC, you know what ‘crapware’ is: software that came loaded on your new machine, that you probably don’t want, or can’t easily remove. In some cases, crapware can actually slow the machine down, for instance some older versions of antivirus software make the operating system lag severely.

Crapware can also take the form of simple changes made by the PC manufacturer, for instance changing the default web browser, or changing the default web search provider in that web browser. Or maybe they decided to change the desktop background so it contains an advertisement.

All of these things are the result of PC makers attempting to survive in a market that would otherwise destroy itself trying to compete on price alone, by adding value to their products to differentiate them, and yes, also by accepting money from software companies to put their products in front of potential customers. Whether they actually add value for users is debatable in many cases, but that is the current situation in the PC market.

Smartphone crapware

Android device owners are now familiar with this practice as well; many Verizon Android phones come preloaded with software that users can’t remove and typically don’t want. Some of them are also set to use Bing as the default web search provider, and on some handsets the user can’t change it back to Google without ‘rooting’ the phone or replacing the Android software itself with a custom version.

Google itself has weighed in on the Android crapware, through Eric Schmidt and Andy Rubin, saying the OS wouldn’t truly be “open source” if they forced carriers and handset makers to only run stock versions without modifications of any kind.

Chromebooks

Now, Google wants to be in the PC market as well, a market that is already well known for crapware. Are they going to take a similar ideological stance with Chrome OS as they have with Android? That remains to be seen, but at some point in 2011, Google partner OEMs like Acer, Asus and Hewlett-Packard, will be releasing Chrome OS laptops, which are intended to ‘live’ exclusively on the web.

Chrome OS is designed in such a way that the user spends 100% of their time in the Google Chrome web browser, there are no other native applications, no start menu, and no ‘desktop’ outside of the web browser.

Given that Chrome OS is intended to have only one ‘native’ application, the Chrome web browser, it would be silly if Google allowed OEMs to preinstall other real applications, and it would also undermine their stance that users can ‘live’ exclusively on the web. But, if Google takes a similar “it wouldn’t really be open source” stance with Chrome OS as they have with Android, they might not have much choice in the matter, because Chromium OS, the source code behind most of Chrome OS, is in fact open source just like Android.

So while that situation remains an unknown for the moment, what CAN the OEMs do to differentiate their products in the market, other than hardware design? I think there are a number of opportunities for added value, and yes also added revenue, without resorting to unwelcome and annoying system modifications.

Mobile connectivity deals

There are some requirements being imposed on Chrome OS OEM partners, and one of those requirements is that all Chrome OS notebooks will ship with mobile network connectivity built-in. The recently unveiled prototype ‘Cr-48’ notebook being given to Chrome OS testers comes with an HSPA+CDMA 3G modem, with 100MB of data transfer from Verizon included for free every month for the next 2 years.

When Chrome OS really launches next year, this will be a prime area for differentiation, where certain OEMs may be able to work out even better deals, like 1GB free per month, or discounted rate plans.

Unfortunately this strategy may also bring up questions of network discrimination: what if Acer partners with Verizon to offer free unlimited Facebook access? Or YouTube access? Sure, it sounds great, but then you can’t really do anything else on the web over 3G without eating into your data cap. Buyers will have to choose carefully.

Free subscriptions to premium internet services

This is actually not uncommon in the PC market, where OEMs will include coupons or offer codes that can be redeemed for a few months worth of free access to certain services that would otherwise require a fee, for instance Real Networks Rhapsody music service.

A prime candidate for special deals in this case would be video sites that offer premium content with a subscription, like Hulu Plus or Netflix (assuming Silverlight is functional on Chrome OS by launch time). Sure, it might eat into someones data cap if they were trying to watch it exclusively on 3G, but I suspect Chrome OS users will spend most of their time connected to Wi-Fi networks anyway.

This is a particularly lucrative strategy that I believe WILL happen one way or another with Chrome OS, because it is the web equivalent of the ‘trial’ software commonly loaded on Windows PCs.

What if they DO alter Chrome OS itself?

If OEMs merely alter the branding or look of the OS, it won’t be a huge problem so long as they don’t cripple Chrome itself. However if they start installing native applications of some kind, or preinstall and prevent the removal of extensions, “toolbars” or other crapware, it will send a terrible message to users, and Google will likely get the blame for all of it.

Depending on what they actually DO to the operating system, OEMs could also harm the security of the platform, for instance if they start inserting themselves in the software update chain between Google and the users as they have with Android updates. Users could end up waiting days or weeks for updates to critical bugs or security vulnerabilities. I don’t expect Google to allow this with their main partners, but with unapproved “Chromium OS” devices? Who knows.

What do you think? Is Google going to put their foot down and retain control over Chrome OS or are they going to let the market decide what it wants?