Digital Fever – Holy crapware Batman!
By Mike Kroll
So it's the holiday season and lucky you just received a new computer. You take it out of the box, set it up and plug it in only to discover that it boots too slow and has a desktop full of icons. The slow boot is caused by the dozen or more programs that are configured to start upon system boot and which consume huge chunks of your new computer's precious memory and steal many processor cycles. Your patience wanes and you begin to believe that this new computer just doesn't have the horsepower you expected. Then windows begin popping up with “great software offers” and reminding you to register soon before the trial version of xyz expires in 15 or 30 days. Somehow you must resist the urge to scream because you are buried in crapware!
Crapware has grown into a huge dilemma for new computer owners. Tales like that described above happen with all to great frequency when people like you buy new computers. It really doesn't matter whether you buy a Dell or an HP or Compaq or Acer. And the problem is just as much in evidence on laptops as on desktops. Crapware is factory installed programs of little or questionable value that come standard on nearly all name-brand computers today.
When computers were first introduced it wasn't uncommon for the buyer to have to purchase the operating system and other software separately from the computer itself and at frequently ridiculously high prices. Then some of the second and third tier brand began bundling not only the OS but useful programs like word processors, spreadsheets and the like. This added perceived value to the computer and helped compete with the bigger brands advertising budgets. Eventually nearly all computer brands came preinstalled with not only the OS but a variety of “useful” software although seldom the top software titles or most recent versions.
But including this software came at a cost to the computer manufacturer. They had to pay the software companies to bundle their software with each computer sold and although they paid but a fraction of the software's retail cost it was peanuts. Software companies discovered that there is a hugh degree of inertia among users and if you can get a computer user to become comfortable with you word processor it is extremely likely that they will later purchase upgraded versions of this software at retail prices of mildly discounted.
There is a competitive advantage to being included on a new computer from the start that just mitigate some or much of the cost of providing bundled software to computer manufacturers, especially if you could create an almost immediate need to upgrade the software. Hence the game changed to bundling complete, full-featured software applications (albeit frequently somewhat dated) to time-limited or feature-restricted trial versions of the newest software applications provided to computer manufacturers absolutely free. This was the beginning of crapware.
Even before the advent of the Internet the spectrum of crapware opportunities really began to blossum as computers began to include modems and companies like America On-line, Compuserve, and a number of other national dial-up networks saw the huge potential of crapware to encourage people to try our their subscription based services and eventually sign-up for paid memberships. It was much, much easier to sell memberships once the potential customer has had the opportunity to try out your service. Soon nearly every new computer included more than one of these wonderful offers.
By the mid 1990s we saw the blossoming of the Internet and not long after the problem of computer viruses created yet more new opportunities to bundle crapware trial versions of antivirus products from Norton and McAfee. The phenomenal popularity of the Internet also fed the market for on-line gaming and soon these too were bundled as crapware. It literally became almost impossible to purchase a new computer without all the crapware.
For the handful of readers who haven't figured out why crapware is such a problem yet let me explain its impact on you. That brand new computer has significant sections of your storage capacity devoted to software you likely don't need, don't want yet will most likely live with for the lifetime of your computer. Most of this software just isn't useful or if it is useful the free trial period ends all too soon and you must pay more to continue using it. To further punish you much of the software is designed to start at bootup wasting valuable memory and processor cycles.
My advice to you is to be prepared for the problem and calmly plan to navigate your way to the Windows control panel where you should select “add and remove programs” (in Windows XP) or “programs and features (in Windows Vista) where you can begin uninstalling the mass of crapware on you new computer. I recommend uninstalling any and all trial software and any other software you don't really need or want; and this process should include any trial version of Norton or McAfee. While you are there uninstall Messenger, Outlook Express, and MSN as they are either serious security vulnerabilities or just plain useless software.
Next you should use Internet Explorer once to download the following two files from the Mozilla Foundation website (www.Mozilla.com): the Firefox web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client. The two downloaded files will show up on your desktop by default in WinXP or in your personal download folder in Win Vista. Double-click on each program file one-at-a-time to install them on you machine. From now on do not use any version of Internet Explorer or Outlook Express as they are security nightmares. Instead you can use Firefox as a replacement for the former and Thunderbird to replace the latter.
Once they are installed you should delete the Internet Explorer icon from your desktop to reduce the opportunity to mistakenly use it in the future. Unfortunately since Internet Explorer was designed to be integral to Windows you do not have the option of totally uninstalling it as you can Outlook or Messenger.
Battling crapware continued...
Last week we discussed what crapware was and why it is so common. We also explained why new computer user's should be concerned about it. I recommended that when you buy your new brand-name computer one of the first things you should do is to remove as much of the crapware that came preinstalled as possible. While many of these annoying programs can be easily removed others are either harder to recognize or specifically designed to frustrate the novice user from attempts to remove them.
The first line of attack is the “add and remove programs” area of the control panel in Windows XP or the “programs and features” section of the control panel in Windows Vista. Go through the list of software installed and click to uninstall any application you know to be trialware or of no interest to you; but be careful not to simply uninstall programs willy-nilly. The safest course of action is to leave any program you are not sure about in place and merely remove those that you are highly confident are unwanted or unnecessary.
Some techniques you can use to identify the crapware is first to check out the many desktop icons or list of program folders on the state menu. Many of the trialware programs will be so identified in the icon description. In most cases you can assume that any copy of Norton or McAfee that comes preinstalled is trialware, this is also true if your computer comes with Microsoft Office or QuickBooks or Quicken preinstalled. Ditto for any preinstalled Internet access deals from AOL, Compuserv, Earthlink, etc.
Another common form of crapware is preinstalled spyware. On-line games, weather programs, screen savers, toolbars and the like are nearly always problematic and should be considered crapware. In my experience the worst thing a new computer user can do is immediately hook their computer to the Internet before removing as much of the crapware as possible. Doing so merely invites further infestation as preinstalled spyware is allowed to communicate outbound from your computer.
While Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Outlook Express or Mail programs are touted as valuable features of the Windows operating system they are really security nightmares that I recommend you NEVER use. Microsoft has never taken security seriously and I know of few other supposedly legitimate software programs that have suffered from the long list of outstanding security weaknesses and exploits that seem to plague these Microsoft products. There are dozens of competing e-mail programs and a good selection of competing web browsers available at little or no cost. I strongly recommend the Firefox web browser and the Thunderbird e-mail client distributed freely by the Mozilla Foundation (www.mozilla.com). My clients who have switched to these products experience far fewer spyware problems and enjoy a better feature set as well.
Once you have downloaded and installed Firefox I recommend that you delete the Internet Explorer icon from your desktop to minimize your chances of using the program in the future. Your next step is to click on the “Tools” menu of Firefox and then click on “Add-ons” in the drop-down menu. This will open a new window from which you can find many useful extensions, themes or plugins for Firefox and automatically install them. For now I will just recommend two, Adblock Plus and IE Tab. These extensions will block nearly all Internet advertisements from displaying in your browser and permit you to emulate Microsoft's Internet Explorer on those websites that only seem to work properly with that browser. IE Tab works so well you can even use Firefox to connect with Microsoft's Windows update page (www.update.microsoft.com)!
Now that you have Firefox installed and populated with some useful extensions the next step is to download a wonderful utility called What's Running. This program is at its heart a process inspector for Windows XP or Vista (the same program works well in both versions of Windows). What's Running lets you see exactly what software programs of processes are running on your computer at any time and gives you the ability to stop any process you choose. Now this is a powerful tool that must be used with care and caution but it also helps you discover programs running in the background on your computer that you may not want running. Additionally, What's Running included a Startup manager tab that allows you to easily control what programs start automatically at bootup, a very useful tool. The program let's you easily stop processes or disable startup programs or even eliminate startup programs with just a few mouse-clicks. You can safely download What's Running from the website (www.whatsrunning.net) and once downloaded simply click on the icon to install the program.
Next, use Firefox to navigate to the website of Ccleaner (www.ccleaner.com) where you should download the program of the same name. Once downloaded install Ccleaner and use it to clean unnecessary or dangerous files from your system and to perform safe and effective maintenance on your registry. Most other free programs that promise to do these tasks are neither safe nor effective but I swear by Ccleaner. I recommend you run Ccleaner immediately after you install or uninstall any software on your computer or once every week or two. You will be amazed at just how much crap it eliminates.
Crapware is an annoyance but it can be so much more and the best time to deal with it is the first time you turn on your new computer. Don't expect it to go away soon because in most cases computer manufacturers actually get paid by crapware vendors for including this on your new computer. Interestingly enough many, many computer buyers have been complaining to computer manufacturers about his problem and these voices have been heard, sort of. Now some manufacturers who sell direct across the Internet such as Dell, Sony or Acer offer the availability of crapware free computer but only at extra cost. That's right, they want to charge you (typically about $50) to not put this crapware on your new PC!
With a little bit of preparation as I have described above you can get a grip on your crapware situation, free up disk space, cleanup your desktop of unnecessary icons and trim down the number of software apps that load upon system boot.
Mike Kroll operates Dr. Mike Computer Therapist where he sells and services personal computers in Galesburg. He can be reached by e-mail at: Dr.Mike@Bizconnect.net or by telephone at 343-6333.