Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

Summary: It's easy for an OEM to screw up a new Windows PC. Just add enough trialware and throw in a few unnecessary programs, and the customer gets a miserable out-of-box experience. Microsoft is trying to fix that with its Signature PC initiative. Does it work? And can it scale?

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Building a Windows PC is a cooperative process. PC makers design and build the hardware, Microsoft designs and builds the OS, and then third-party software developers join the party. If everything works together, the end result can be a joy to use. But if any part of the partnership breaks down, the poor PC buyer is the one who suffers.

Making PCs is a tough business, with low profit margins and cutthroat competition. To squeeze a few extra bucks out of every PC they sell, some OEMs cut deals to make extra money by preinstalling trial versions of software. If they can convince you to pay for an upgrade to the full version, they make a commission. But those upsell offers (also known as crapware) are annoying, and in the worst case they can slow a PC noticeably.

On top of that, some OEMs feel compelled to "add value" to their hardware by bundling software programs and utilities that duplicate functions already available in Windows. And they can get downright sloppy about the things that really do matter, like updates and drivers.

Over the last decade I have written a lot about this problem. In 2006, I asked Why do new PCs come with so much junkware? In the darkest days of Windows Vista, in early 2008, I found a Sony VAIO PC that represented a truly awful PC experience:

This gorgeous machine was ugly in action: slow to start, sluggish when performing everyday tasks, crash-prone, and overloaded with annoying and unwanted software. But is it really a hopeless case, or was this system done in by the rush to market and a sloppy OEM integration?

In an interview at the time, a Sony senior executive candidly admitted that the problem was all theirs, calling his company's PCs "the poster child for negative experiences people had [with trialware]."

I was able to fix that PC with a clean install and hours of fine-tuning. But that approach doesn't scale and should never have been necessary.

Now, three years later, I'm curious. Have OEMs cleaned up their act? Are today's Windows PCs still a mess or do consumers have a fighting chance?

Fortunately, I found a nearly perfect sample set that also included its own control group. Microsoft sells PCs through the Microsoft Store, both online and in 14 retail outlets in the United States. Those machines are configured with a custom Windows installation that the company calls Microsoft Signature. The rules are stringent:

  • No trialware, and no unnecessary startup programs.
  • The desktop is clean, with no gadgets, no icons (except for the Recycle Bin), and no unnecessary system try icons.
  • Microsoft's free antivirus software is installed and activated, and Windows Update is configured to install updates automatically.
  • The Microsoft Signature theme pack, with images drawn from the same pool as those used on Bing, is installed and set as the default background.
  • Windows Live Essentials, Office 2010 Starter Edition (not a trialware product), and Zune software are installed and all activations are performed.
  • No added mouse/keyboard navigation systems are allowed beyond the Windows Start menu and taskbar.

In addition, the installations are up-to-date, with the latest service packs and updates applied. And the final product includes 90 days of free support from Microsoft.

The goal is to make the experience of using a PC better—not just on unboxing day but for the life of the PC.

So, two months ago, I picked up three pairs of new consumer notebooks, one pair each from HP, Samsung, and Sony. In each case, the hardware was identical but the installed software was different, with one model containing the OEM's standard consumer installation and the other built to Microsoft Signature specs. The differences were eye-opening.

Here, for example, is the out-of-box desktop experience Samsung delivered to customers in 2011. And yes, this PC has trialware offers from both Norton and McAfee.

Here's the same experience, delivered via Microsoft Signature:

I'll have full details about all three pairs of PCs in a follow-up post next week, but here are some high-level conclusions:

  • Whatever joy you might feel on unboxing a new PC evaporates quickly if you have to spend hours setting it up. The out-of-box experience with a Signature PC is strikingly better.
  • PC OEMs have cut back on trialware, but they haven't broken the habit. The upsell nags for antivirus software are particularly annoying on OEM PCs.
  • OEMs continue to insist on superfluous control panels, toolbars, and desktop docks that do nothing for usability.
  • Extra software causes usability headaches for even simple tasks, like playing a DVD or downloading pictures.
  • The Signature PCs are faster to start up, by an average of 10-15 seconds, but the differences in usability are even more important.

The problem with Microsoft Signature right now is a matter of scale. With only 14 physical stores, the company can reach only a fraction of PC buyers directly, and most people have no idea that the online store sells roughly 60 name-brand notebook and desktop PCs (plus a few tablets) all configured using Microsoft Signature.

Would I recommend a Microsoft Signature PC? For someone who doesn't have the time or the technical skills to do a clean Windows install, absolutely. Removing all that trialware and simplifying the experience makes a PC faster and easier to use.

Back in 2009, when Microsoft opened its retail store in Scottsdale, Arizona, I visited the store with a friend, who purchased a Dell notebook running Windows 7. That machine was one of the first delivered under the Microsoft Signature program, and it has been problem-free ever since. When they replace that PC in a year or two, I have no doubt they'll go back to the same store.

Topics: Software, Hardware, Microsoft

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  • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

    Where would they put crap-ware on Win8 metro? Your shots are of Win7.
    Return_of_the_jedi
    • Windows 7 is being sold today

      @Return_of_the_jedi

      Windows 8 is not even in beta yet. (It's been released as a developer preview.)

      PCs running Windows 7 will be sold for another year at the very least. And Windows 8 will still have a desktop experience that OEMs can screw up.
      Ed Bott
      • MS will not be able to protect W8 from junkware exactly for the reasons you

        @Ed Bott: ... described. Most of MS's parters in PC business almost earn no money comparing to these crazy billions MS earns, so the company could not possibly force them to cut themselves off even of these puny dimes from software developers.

        [b]Nor Microsoft can start huge worldwide "Buy Signature PC" marketing campaign[/b], since it will immediately expose and undermine all of the sellers of "junk", thus hurting their businesses.

        So MS will continue this Signature PCs to be a low profile "proof of concept" experience thing as an answer to these critics of MS who claim the company does not care about user experience and does not strive for perfection.

        They care and they strive, but business people run the show there, not consumer-driven ones. They can not let down their business partners.

        W8 tiled UI might be the attempt to go to the right direction -- Apple-like controlled environment that would allow eliminate junkware problem at least with the tiled UI mode.
        dderss
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        @Ed Bott Windows 8 has reset to factory defaults as I remember and it is supposed to clean out all that junkware out of PC. If it does not then it would be abother failure of Microsoft.
        Nikolayev
      • Windows 8 PC builders software wanted

        @Ed Bott

        As long as there is available PC builders software all I am planning on upgrading with my available custom computers is a touch screen monitor. Right now I have my own basic installed programs that I plan on trimming since reading this article; like Adobe Flash Player and Adobe Reader latest versions. I wouldn't have thought to activate Office Starter Edition? Since with Windows 7 Professional I just load Virtual PC and Windows XP Mode. So that just as with Media Player it has to be activated by the client.

        I do however install all current updates and offer a second hard drive option with a backup image of the oem install, operational software with the purpose of continued scheduled backups.
        Rob T.
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        @Ed Bott

        True, that is what I am really worried about. That is the main reason actually why when I get a computer, the FIRST thing I do is a fresh installation and, if necessary, crack the OS so that it will run properly.
        Lerianis10
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        @Ed Bott Microsoft only cares about the license fee. The OEM has to be concerned about the price. This is the end result of the race to the bottom. The typical Window buyer is looking fir the lowest price, to achieve that th OEMs need to subsidize the price. It is either going to be the trial ware, or Microsoft will have to lower the price of Windows, and allow the OEMs to replace Microsofts middleware.
        Rick_Kl
      • Rick_Kl, it is obvious you do not understand the typical PC buyer

        @Ed Bott
        [i]This is the end result of the race to the bottom. The typical Window buyer is looking fir the lowest price[/i]

        That is not factual, as mid range machines are the most purchased PC's.

        The low end machines you speak of do not sell in the quantities needed to sustain a PC based company, thus proving your statement to be highly unfactual.
        :|
        Tim Cook
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        [i]And Windows 8 will still have a desktop experience that OEMs can screw up.[/i]

        And that's not something to be proud of, Ed.

        Just sayin' ;)
        ScorpioBlue
    • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

      @Return_of_the_jedi...

      I have an even better question: why is Mr. Bott assuming it's always the fault of crapware and add-ons,when he himself admits:

      "I was able to fix that PC with a clean install and hours of fine-tuning."

      Notice the last part of that sentence, where hours were wasted in tuning a stock OS to the hardware. I doubt those hours were all spent in downloading drivers, so why the necessity of tuning the OS if it's so gosh-darn wonderful, and that the only reason it sucks in the eyes of most just has to be those nasty evil OEMs?

      IMHO, the truth lies in between. Windows has issues and problems, and no amount of finger-pointing or whitewash will get rid of that simple fact. OEMs (and stores!) do have a bad habit of loading down machines with garbage apps and trialware BS.

      OTOH, I'm typing this missive on a Samsung RC512. I uninstalled the obvious garbageware (Best Buy, I'm looking at you), and was able to clear off the A/V and other "OAMG please buy me!!11" crap in less than an hour. However, I kept the Cyberlink apps on it (for any Blu-Ray discs that I occasionally play), and they've all run without a hitch.

      OTOH, I still see most of the same Windows problems that I see on a HP Elitebook 8440p that runs a clean install, tuned and tweaked for maximum performance (the HP has Windows 7 Pro, while the Samsung has Home Premium, which explains the diff).

      All that said, Ed's not telling the whole story. Certainly OEM crapware additions and bork-ups are a big part of the problem, but his buddies at Microsoft need to eat their fair share of the blame as well.

      Otherwise, why doesn't he just buy the damned machinery at a Microsoft Store, where the computers there are allegedly free of crapware?
      Random_Walk
      • Why don't you go read the post?

        @Random_Walk

        The reference I provided was to a Sony PC back in 2008, shipped with Windows Vista in early 2007 when it was just released. I went into great detail what I had to do with that system to make it work. You would know that if you clicked the link and read the story.

        The three PCs I looked at here are not remotely in that class. Every single one started up in 30-50 seconds and was fully usable.
        Ed Bott
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        @Random_Walk - obviously if you are adept at doing clean installs you run windows update as your first bit of business. I recently did this on a Win 7 premium machine, ther were 253 updates available, I have a very highspeed connection and this updating took approximately 2 hours to download and install. Most of the download is SP1 but there are some 75 updates since that was released plus on the second pass it updated drivers. I have installed Ubuntu on systems and this is comparable to the time it took to install and do all the necessary updates as well. I have now created an image so that in future I will just overlay the image and forego the update hassles but there will still be some updates that will have to be installed and these take time. Crapware is a problem as installed now, what should be done is make a directory and write software to inform new users as to what it contains, what the various software does and then offer to install if the user really wants it, but it shouldn't come up as nag screens and interfere with the operation of the OS.
        Rndmacts
      • The Apple Model

        @Random_Walk

        Ed never tells the whole story. It's never in his interest. All OEM's "recommend" Windows. Their inability to provide a truly differentiated experience leads them down this path. Open Architecture dies by the sword it lives by. Can we really ask the OEMs to present a Windows sanitized user experience? What about Open Architecture's sanctimonious lobby on behalf of choice? Choice of what exactly? Different shapes and colours of extruded plastic? When it becomes clear that the hardware is not sufficiently differentiated (intel chipsets), the software is not differentiated (Window's French Vanilla) and the purchase experience is either a bullpen or a "Windows Store", it becomes quite clear where the real and substantive choice lies.

        Need a clue? The Windows store is a thinly veiled knockoff of a certain competitor. They can't even differentiate there, where there are no constraints. It's clear to everyone where the leadership is coming from.

        This cannot however be yet another excuse to compliment ourselves on how technically savvy we are and how we can remove our own crapware. Most users want clear, out-of-the-box functionality. Not solicitous appeals for digital snake oil. In this respect Ed is right. His little Sony excursion does not scale. Every user can't have his own Ed.

        Where he is wrong? The false "PC" market has depended on the illusion of choice. Negating that illusion throws all PCs into a single tar ball. The false marketplace fails and the real one takes over. In the real marketplace, real choice is much more limited. Ed's platform of choice now has to compete for real. There is a good chance it may lose more devotees. This has a cumulative effect. OEMs stop bolstering the platform and start diluting it. If the experience of use is sold as a homogeneous one, all the OEMs are seen as team members, not competitors. The choice for a single computer from a single OEM is seen as a fragment of the platform. Meanwhile, Apple sells a conduit to a complete "use experience". One that is fully 2-3 years ahead in the areas that consumers care about.
        norgate
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        @Random_Walk: Pro isn't more efficient than Home Premium, that's just nonsense. Of course Windows isn't perfect, show me an OS that is? They're complicated creatures.
        bradavon
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        @Random_Walk And what would be the performance difference between Home Premium and Professional. And how about Ultimate? (And I'm not talking about artificial limits on CPU and memory that those versions differ by)
        HinoMusouka
    • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

      @Return_of_the_jedi
      algaatoz@...
  • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

    The crapware experience is made worse by the fact that most systems ship without a physical copy of Windows. It used to be easier just to flatten the hard drive and install drivers than to mess with uninstalling the crapware, but no mas.
    txscott
    • Don't nessesarily need the physical copy...

      @rshol As long as you have some physical copy available. its the product key that controls your licensing - not the media the OS was installed from. You can use any old Windows 7 install DVD as long as you activate it with the product key that goes with your machine which will be on the Microsoft sticker on the outside of the computer. If you have a technet or MSDN subscription (or have a friend who does) you can easily download installation media for use with your existing product key - or just borrow a DVD from a friend who has one - as long as you use your own product key
      cornpie
      • RE: Can Microsoft cure PC makers of the crapware habit?

        @cornpie: Incorrect. I tried that methodology when I bought my wife a new HP laptop last year. Blew out the factory install along with the crapware and reinstalled Windows 7 with my retail copy of Windows along with the key on the laptop and it would not activate. I called the MS activation hotline and they explained to me (the MS Partner at my office concurred with this) that the retail and OEM keys are generated differently and require those specific versions of Windows in order to be activated. She was nice enough to activate it for me (she understood my situation), but I did go online and locate a "clean" HP OEM version of Windows to use in the future.
        darthmongo
      • You have that backwards

        @cornpie <br><br>You *license* controls your licensing. Your product key is just an anti-piracy measure. If you have a multiple licenses to use Windows, it doesn't really matter where your product key and media come from - so long as they are official channels, and not pirated copies. If you have one product key and one matching media that supports your product key, you can use whatever installation media you have so long as you still abide by your licensing terms. This is one of the things that Microsoft has said before (unofficially, of course) to Action Pack members that have licensing to run an application, but haven't had it posted to the Action Pack download site on time. Since the Action Pack also includes a TechNet Plus account, they can download and use the software from there for internal-use if it isn't available on the MAPS download page yet. TechNet Plus downloads are not meant for production use, so this would ordinarily be taboo, but since you already have a license to run that EXACT SAME piece of software in question (assuming it is the same SKU and edition), there are certain unofficial stipulations around availability that Microsoft will allow for.
        Joe_Raby