There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

Summary: Remember, most users don't even know how to distinguish a shortcut from an executable file.

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TOPICS: Hardware, Laptops
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Photo courtesy Flickr user Editor B.

It's been about three years since I've bought a pre-packaged PC. Normally, I build my own machines, switching out mobos, graphics cards, processors, and all the rest whenever I need. I also install my own clean OS, so what's running on any given machine is what I purposely put on the machine.

But about every three years or so, it's time to buy a new laptop. In this case, I'm doing coding, and the laptop I bought three years ago won't accept any more RAM and I need a LOT more RAM (I'm running a bunch of simultaneous VMs, different browsers, local servers, IDEs, etc., and that all eats RAM like a stoner eats Cheetos).

My current laptop is also making some bad fan clacking noises that imply something's about to break real-soon-now.

So I bought and took delivery of a machine that can handle up to 16GB of RAM (yep, cool, eh?). The thing is, this is a pre-packaged machine -- you know, the way the typical consumer gets his computer.

After waiting forever for the new laptop to boot up for the first time, I finally had a desktop, a desktop filled with icons.

Shovelware.

Initially, I didn't get a chance to deal with the shovelware because I wanted to create a rescue DVD. The machine didn't come with drivers (or a manual containing anything more than information about how to plug it in -- in 12 different languages). Since I'm always a little paranoid about returning to a starting state with vendor-built machines, I started burning the rescue disks.

(Yes, I know there's software to extract drivers. I did that when I gave my mom my last laptop, but I like having one copy of the original state just to be safe).

While burning the disks (for some reason, this took three hours), the spammy little trial anti-virus software package shoveled on the machine kept insisting I buy a license. This got in the way of the dialog suggesting I insert a new disk for my rescue disk set. Mouse judo ensued.

I finally finished the rescue disk process and sat down to the task of figuring just what was installed on this machine.

There was an epic amount of crap. From lots of random shortcuts to various Web sites (do you really need to give me an eBay shortcut on my desktop?) to Dropbox-like file sharing services, it was all installed.

Some of it was dangerous. There were two file upload/sync services installed, one of which looked just like a drive. Users might unknowingly copy their files to this service, and not even realize they're sending it to a cloud service -- or all the security and privacy ramifications.

Remember, most users don't even know how to distinguish a shortcut from an executable file.

All told, last night I spent about eight hours digging through, removing stuff, rebooting, trying to determine what was installed, re-partitioning the drives (why did the drive have to come with FIVE partitions?) and otherwise making the machine usable.

It was a complete waste of my time.

Here's the thing. I don't begrudge software makers from selling licenses or getting trials placed on PCs. Back in ancient times, I ran a software company and those were among the most lucrative deals. I even wrote a chapter in 1994's Flexible Enterprise about the wonderful value of bundles.

So, I'm okay with hardware vendors dumping shovelware on packaged PCs. What I'm not okay with is the shovelware version being the only option.

My rescue disk set came to five DVDs. Five! Yet Windows 7 fits on a single DVD. So why is the rescue set five DVDs? Because of all the shovelware.

I think it's time hardware makers provided a clean-install option. It doesn't have to be the default option. But rather than having to guess what's critical to system function and what's a huge library of obsolete Flash games running, for some reason, under the control of a system service, there should at least be an option to restore to a clean, minimal system.

Now, here's where I get all ZDNet Government on you. I think there ought to be a law. I'm not a big fan of regulation, but because the shovelware installed on most PCs invariably introduces security vulnerabilities, PCs as they are sold are easy targets for botnets and other cyberattacks.

I'd like to see a law that requires all PC vendors to provide a clean install option that's only the basic operating system and important drivers, and let everything else be installed optionally.

Us geeks would be far less stressed out and the general consumer would at least have the option of a more secure machine.

While we're looking at what's best for consumers, it's also time to install Microsoft Security Essentials or another good, free anti-virus program on these machines by default. Too many people pass the 30-day trial period and don't upgrade and they're being left completely vulnerable.

I know anti-virus trial bundles are big deals for hardware makers, but almost as much could be accomplished with a nice bonus pitch than a built-in install -- and our consumers would be far safer.

Remember that even if your PC is secure, every vulnerable PC increases the possibility of a botnet taking hold and attacking services we all need and rely on.

Update to head off some comments:

  • I chose THIS laptop specifically because it came with a tremendous amount of RAM and 7200RPM drives. A random HP, Dell, or Mac would not meet my needs. This particular machine was also quite reasonably priced and I like to be frugal, when possible.
  • I chose a Windows machine because I'm using Windows and Windows programming environments. By choice. So a Mac or Ubuntu wouldn't meet my needs -- although I do need Ubuntu on a VM because I do use some Linux tools in the process.
  • Windows 7 is a fine OS. So let's avoid the Windows/Linux/Mac religion (at least for just one day). Okay?
  • I chose a laptop vs. building my own PC because I need mobility.
  • I chose not to completely reformat and install my own OS build because I wanted to save a day of driver hunting and the system seemed relatively solid. Separate drivers were not provided with the machine and the vendor's site did not appear to have a full set for download (there were also bad links). I may have to go to bare metal, but I'd prefer not to.

So there you go. There oughta be a law. TalkBack. And no, this post is not being paid for by Apple (I know at least one of you is going to go there).

Topics: Hardware, Laptops

About

David Gewirtz, Distinguished Lecturer at CBS Interactive, is an author, U.S. policy advisor, and computer scientist. He is featured in the History Channel special The President's Book of Secrets and is a member of the National Press Club.

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Talkback

175 comments
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  • There ought to be a law...

    ... against forcing you to have Windows bundled with the laptop in the first place. If you wanted to buy it, install Ubuntu Linux on it, you'd still be shelling out coin for M$
    So the shovelware is really not the main issue here...
    myles@...
    • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

      @myles@...

      You aren't forced to by your laptop from a manufacturer that doesn't offer anything besides Windows as the OS. An attack on Microsoft because of something installed on a PC by a third party vendor is a little bit on the obtuse side. There are several places where a laptop can be purchased that doesn't have Windows installed on it, take Apple for instance, and even HP was offering freeDOS instead of windows as an option, so your complaint goes out the proverbial window from the start.
      Cyrorm
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @Cyrorm

        You too also seem to be a little slow... Apple computers only come with OS X so referring to Apple is incorrect as you're forced to buy their computers with OS X on it. HP and others offer PC's with or without Windows. Apple only offers their computers with OS X. Dolt.
        audidiablo
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @audidiablo

        Oh No! I can't have one of the least used operating systems on every device ever made by default! Poor Me!
        nccastle@...
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @audidiablo
        You too also seem to be a little slow... Apple computers only come with OS X so referring to Apple is incorrect as you're forced to buy their computers with OS X on it.


        Speaking of slow, perhaps you need to read what I wrote the first time...

        "There are several places where a laptop can be purchased that doesn't have Windows installed on it, take Apple for instance, and even HP"

        OS X is not Windows in case you were confused.
        Cyrorm
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @Cyrorm

        Most consumers are forced to purchase Windows with their systems. I searched Best Buy, Frys and TigerDirect for freeDOS and found nothing. NewEgg sells two HP systems with it.
        SamHobbs
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @Cyrorm

        My apologies, I took it that you listed Apple as a company that sells their computers with a variety of OS's opposed to it being a company that sells computers without Windows. Either way I would rather have a Windows or Linux based PC any day over a Crashntoss closed world dictatorship pile.
        audidiablo
    • There is one law against that

      @myles@...

      It's called <i>moral decency</i>.

      Unfortunately there's no way to enforce it, the courts simply won't care about it.
      OS Reload
    • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

      look look http://ta.gg/4or
      lincc240
    • wtf?

      @myles@...
      what is shovelware? am i missing something here on my clean, fast, secure mac? (that of course comes with an installer disc - in case you would need it). pc guys, help me out. what is shovelware?
      banned from zdnet
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @banned from zdnet

        Seems like what you are missing is a brain. Look up "most insecure software" Apple ranks #1 so that knocks out 2/3 of your statement. Your Mac is only as fast as OS X. If OS X were to run on true up to date PC hardware it would be much faster since Apple tells their customers they are getting the latest and greatest where they usually get last generation hardware at 3 times the price. Their OS is based off Unix just like Linux but Linux is free and more secure... Apple charges you for their OS and memberships and everything else which is commonly free. Buying an Apple product is for those who need to make a fashion statement. You go with your bad self Bruno.
        audidiablo
      • bruno

        @idiotdiablo

        thanks for the insults, insecure idiot.
        and you didn't answer my question.
        banned from zdnet
      • I can help you out with that

        @banned from zdnet

        What is shovelware? Well, start up your precious Mac and take a look at all of the iCrap that it comes reinstalled with. Macs are literally shoveled full of worthless crapware, starting with OSX.
        itpro_z
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @banned from zdnet

        Your welcome.

        Shovelware is pretty much a bunch of trial software installed on machines. You can go out and buy a Toshiba laptop and it will come pre-installed with some of their own tools but as well Norton Antivirus which is a resource hog and sucks and other software which is generally unused or not needed by the consumer. This is a new form of advertising pushing product on consumers. Most of these applications start during start-up giving the illusion of a slow machine whereas the machine is fine and Windows is fine but the 3rd party applications are what consume resources. It seems most companies are headed this way since Google was able to run their company on 97% revenue from advertising. Apple submitted a patent request to implement advertisements in all their OS's where the user is required to view the advertisement and answer a question about the advertisement in order to resume work on their device. If answered incorrectly they would have to either view the same advertisement over again or view a new advertisement and answer the question(s). It seems the next big bubble in the economy will be an advertisement bubble. We all hate commercials so we get DVR's or stream TV off the internet. I use Firefox with Adblock Plus, Element Hiding helper and Ghostery for removing advertisements, keeping privacy and speeding up web browsing. Similar applies to computers of all OS's aside of maybe Linux :)
        audidiablo
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @banned from zdnet - have you ever used a Mac?

        I have.

        1. Symantec, Intego, and other companies make security suites for the Mac. If OS X was secure, no 3rd party vendor would need to port their software. Oh, the fact the iPhone can be jailbroken (or have its SMS database hacked with no jailbreaking required) and iOS is a whittled down OS X (which is a modified FreeBSD), please do not spread FUD.

        2. Your sarcasm is immature as well, regarding "what is shovelware". You know what it is as well as anybody else.

        3. My Mac slows down over time as well - maybe people who only browse the web and don't save data onto their hard drives don't have that problem. The more data a person has on their hard drive(s), the more space gets used by a indexing and/or caching service. And disk search and access speeds also slow down due to the amount of data. OS X's file system, just like Linux file systems, doesn't fragment, but that doesn't mean Macs "never" slow down. Again, please stop with the fairy tales.

        4. Lastly, Macs use the identical off-the-shelf components are non-Apple brand PCs. So Macs are, in terms of hardware, the same thing as PCs.
        HypnoToad72
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @banned from zdnet
        Our corporate network requires VPN client for Windows only. You're fired. Take your little toy with you.
        bigjuliefromchicago
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @banned from zdnet I think they call that trolling my friend. Yes you're right Macs don't come with lots of software that is of little or no value. We get it. The point of the article is that (Windows) PCs shouldn't either. I think we can all agree that it would be better for PC buyers if their machine was supplied without the OEMs putting shovelware (which is a far politer term that I'd have used) on the system. Actually it would be better if OEMs put more RAM in as well (mind you, Apple could benefit from increasing the "standard RAM" as well).<br><br>I wonder if Microsoft has a certification that a PC could come with (I dunno "Microsoft Certified Installation Gold") that had proper rules (no shovelware, and enough RAM) where the OEM could then put a "Gold Badge" on the PC. Buyers might then start looking for the "Gold Badge" and then we might see an end to these horrible bloated configurations. As long as Microsoft don't start insisting you take any of their offerings (above Windows) to qualify. OEMs could offer whatever they wanted "in the box" as long as they didn't preinstall it (like Apple do with Xcode... most Mac users have no need of it, so they don't install it, if you want it you install it from the supplied DVD).

        updated:

        @banned from zdnet: I'm not sure that Microsoft did this to the OEMs, I rather think they did it to each other. There are PC buyers who'll pay a premium for a PC, if they perceive extra value. Dell have Adamo (I have no idea if that's worth the extra or not - never seen one) and Alienware. I think such configurations are more common in the US (I'm in the UK). Also people do buy Macs, I mean "normal", "regular" people - not just "fanbois" or "geeks". Typically they have a higher purchase price than the "commoditized" PC (personally I think TCO is a different story... but I'm getting off the point). Dell sell Optiplex and Precision... not everything in the "PC universe" has to be "cheap". I think the problem is most buyers don't even know you could buy a PC without all this "stuff" and it doesn't say "free from worthless bloat" on the box. I mean what other purchase of a few hundred bucks do you make where you're thinking "I don't care about quality" - seriously? I'm sure it doesn't have to be this way.

        Look I'm a user of all three platforms (IT professional - so yeah sure, not a "normal" or "regular" person as far as buying a computer is concerned). If you're building a system, I think sticking Linux on it is a no-brainer, it costs nothing and you can dual boot with Windows (and let's face it, hard disks are huge these days). If you want a Windows system, well building it, or having someone build it for you is a great way to get Windows installed properly (if a little expensive). Me? I'll freely admit, my "weapon of choice" is a Mac, and depending on what you want I'm not unlikely to recommend a Mac to you - but it's not always the right choice, and I'd like to have more options to recommend to people who really should be buying PCs. More than once someone has brought me a new PC and it's made me feel quite annoyed how the OEM had crippled it with too much junk and too little RAM. More than once I've found my OEM Windows install DVD and reinstalled it for them (after all, there is a license key stuck on the side of the machine). It just shouldn't be like this, even if that meant PCs were $50 more, it would be money well spent (especially if they include the recovery DVD!)
        Jeremy-UK
      • troll

        @Jeremy-UK

        sorry, yes a bit trolling, i admit. couldn't help myself.

        but isn't there at least on PC company that clears away from that? has it become really that bad? my point is, microsoft has successfully commoditized the PC business. hardware makers have no other differentiation anymore than price. a race to the bottom in margins and quality (there is no single quality hardware maker left but apple, the rest glues together the same cheap parts as anyone else (2-3 hours battery time? you gotta be kidding me)).

        so shovelware is inherent to the business model of windows PCs. they are not an abomination, they are the only way for PC makers to go in this ruthless price fight. so either you build your PC from scratch, go with linux and if you're not a geek, you have to go apple. if you go windows you'll have shovelware.

        you get what you pay for.
        banned from zdnet
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @banned from zdnet - one last thing:

        http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=779592

        Gee, they don't think OS X is secure...

        http://www.fiercecio.com/techwatch/story/pwn2own-2010-mac-isnt-more-secure/2010-03-26

        Sorry, but you need to wake up about the false belief Macs are secure.
        HypnoToad72
      • RE: There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

        @banned from zdnet

        You should also take point in what computer usually falls first and usually within minutes at every tipping point convention... Apple... Yeah bout that.
        audidiablo