'Crapware' won't crap out

FARHAD MANJOO
Last updated 05:00 25/01/2013
crapware
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InstallMonetizer helps crapware makers get their stuff on your computer.

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For a few years now, I've been expecting to write an obituary for crapware. Or not an obit, exactly - I was hoping to dance on its grave. 

Crapware is the annoying software that worms into your computer without your knowledge. You can get it when you buy your PC - software companies pay PC makers to install the stuff on new machines - or when you download some ostensibly useful program from the Web.

You might download Adobe's Flash player, say, and only later discover that the installer also larded up your computer with a dubious "PC health check" program that tries to scare you into paying to "repair" your machine.

But ever since the summer of 2008, when Apple launched its App Store, the death of crapware has seemed imminent. The App Store promised to kill crapware by centralizing software distribution. Because it's the only way to get apps on your phone, and because Apple prohibits crapware and reviews all the apps that get submitted to the store, you'll never get unwanted programs when you install an app.

There are lots of problems with this model - the App Store gives Apple too much control over the software market, letting it stifle competition and enforce prudishness. But one of the reasons the App Store has proved so popular is that it lets people try new software without having to worry that it will hurt their machines.

That's one reason why Android, Windows, Kindle, and the BlackBerry have all adopted similar centralized app stores. Many of these stores have more liberal review policies than Apple's, but they all prohibit crapware. It seemed likely, then, that this scourge would soon be gone - if we all got our apps from app stores, and if someone was checking those apps to make sure they weren't bundled with unwanted software, crapware would soon crap out.

But that's not happening. Crapware has proved remarkably resilient, and now I fear it will stick around for years to come. That's because device makers, cellular carriers, and some of the most prominent investors in Silicon Valley are keeping it alive.

It's also because Google and Microsoft, the only companies in a position to stop it, haven't fought crapware with the passion it deserves. (Macs can get crapware through bundled downloads, too, but Apple doesn't allow it to be preinstalled, and Apple's centralized Mac App Store - which is becoming the favored way to distribute Mac programs - prohibits it.)

And that gets to the main reason crapware lives on: There's a lot of money in it. Indeed, the rise of app stores has perversely made crapware even more valuable than in the past. App stores are clogged with thousands of programs, so it's harder than ever for software companies to get you to voluntarily download their stupid games, weather monitoring programs, and unnecessary security programs.

That's why they're willing to pay a lot to get their stuff on your device without your permission - and that's why crapware may never, ever die.

There are two main problems with crapware. First, it's deceptive, and the underhandedness associated with preinstalled and secretly installed software makes people suspicious about computers - and that goes against the long-term interests of everyone in the tech industry.

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Second, crapware devotes system resources to stuff you don't need. Sometimes this slows down your computer, sometimes it invades your privacy, and other times it's just annoying, adding extra steps to your daily computing tasks.

Take, for instance, the Ask toolbar. As Ben Edelman, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, documented last week, this browser plug-in is unbelievably annoying. It loads itself into your browser - IE, Chrome, or Firefox - and then makes Ask.com or its sister site, MyWebSearch, your default search engine. Then, anytime you do a search, you're presented with a page of results that consists almost entirely of advertising. Edelman writes:

The volume of advertisements is remarkable. On a 800x600 monitor, the entire first two screens of Mywebsearch results presented advertisements - four large ads with a total of seven additional miniature ads contained within. The first algorithmic search result appears on the third on-screen page, where users are far less likely to see it. At Ask.com, ads are even larger: fully seven advertisements appear above the first algorithmic result, and three more ads appear at page bottom - more than filling two 800x600 screens.

No one would ever install such a terrible toolbar by choice. But Ask doesn't need you to install its stuff; instead it pays lots of companies to help squirrel the toolbar into your machine. As tech journalist Ed Bott reported last week, one of those firms is Oracle, whose own browser plug-in, Java, has been plagued by lots of security holes lately.

You should disable Java, but if you don't, you should at least update it - and when you do, you'll notice that its security upgrade installer prechecks a box that installs Ask into your browser. Or, more likely, you won't notice that because you'll be rushing to click through the installer.

And say you get suspicious and decide to check Windows' list of recently installed programs to see if anything unwanted was added to your system? As Bott documented, the Ask toolbar does something clever - it waits for 10 minutes after you install Java to install itself. The delay allows it to escape your immediate detection.

The rise of app stores will make Ask's crapware technique more difficult to pull off; if you do upgrades through a store, you won't be hit by unwanted software when you go to fix a security problem. But even though Microsoft has been pushing Windows developers to create apps for its new Windows Store, Windows 8, its latest operating system, still allows users to bypass the centralized Windows Store and get Windows programs from the Web.

As a technical matter, then, upgrading to the new OS won't do much to defend against crap you don't need. That's probably why Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator, big names in Silicon Valley's startup scene, have invested in InstallMonetizer, a company that helps crapware makers get their stuff on your computer. InstallMonetizer, which is 2 years old, says that it is profitable and has been doubling the amount of crapware it gets on users' computers every few months. (It doesn't call it crapware.) In other words, despite Windows 8's app store, crapware is likely to remain a bonanza.

And even if Windows 8 prohibited non-app-store downloads, there's still another way for software companies to get their stuff on your machine: They can pay device makers and cell carriers to install it on new devices. One of the reasons Android has grabbed so much of the mobile market is that many Android phones are much cheaper than the iPhone. One of the reasons they're so cheap is because they're subsidized by software that ruins the device, making it slower and draining your battery. Microsoft has been marketing new Windows 8 devices as more appliance-like (more like the iPad than a PC), but they too have been crippled by crapware - whether you buy an expensive Windows 8 laptop or an innovative tablet/PC hybrid, you'll find that it's clogged with stuff you don't need. (Here are guides to getting rid of crapware on Android and Windows 8.)

Google and Microsoft could easily inhibit crapware by altering Android and Windows licenses to prevent manufacturers and carriers from preinstalling the software. But I don't expect them to do so.

While crapware sucks for users, and while it doesn't help the images of Android and Windows in the long run, it's good for Microsoft and Google in the short run. The money that device makers get from crapware makers lowers the price of Windows and Android devices, which in turn boosts their market share. Plus, Microsoft has found a way to make money from junkware - if you take your computer to a Microsoft Store and pay $99, the company will remove all the junk for you.

See? Crapware pays! That's why it will never die.

-Slate

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