There oughta be a law against shovelware on new PCs

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

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.


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).