Crapware, and how we got here

Crapware is in the news in a big way this week thanks to Oracle’s recent Java “security” update and a blog post by Long Zheng that exposes the economic incentives for software developers to bundle crapware installers.  He also points out that respected Silicon Valley VCs are funding Crapware-installer InstallMonetizer.  Ed Bott pulls the story together in his ZDNet piece.

One of the things coming out in all of this is that Microsoft, usually seen as one of the victims in the spread of crapware, is not completely innocent in this matter.  For example, Microsoft’s Online Services Division (OSD) at one point used InstallMonetizer to distribute its Bing and MSN toolbars.  And for a period (before Sun was acquired by Oracle) OSD had a deal to distribute the Bing toolbar with Sun’s Java distribution.  OSD wasn’t alone in this as Developer Division used this technique (and often piggybacks on OSD’s deals) to distribute Silverlight.  So how did we get here?

You probably know the general story behind crapware on PCs, but I’ll do a quick refresh.  Competition in a commodity market left PC makers unable to price their products to make a profit.  On top of that, gaps in the completeness of Windows (e.g., no antivirus or inability to create a DVD) left openings that OEMs had to fill.  Finally Microsoft’s antitrust settlements forced them to allow OEMs to replace the parts of Windows considered “middleware” such as Internet Explorer.  Numerous software vendors than stepped in to offer OEMs payments in exchange for equipping their PCs with trial or lite editions of the software vendor’s product.  Soon every PC came with a dizzying array of these third-party products, most unwanted by the consumer.  Besides that, the PC usage experience degraded as each PC offered a completely different experience.  And basically, there was nothing Microsoft could do about it.

Eventually other players in the industry recognized that they could get in on the game.  In particular Adobe (with Reader and Flash), Sun/Oracle (Java), and HP (printers) figured they could make money off of their free software by doing crapware distribution deals just like PC vendors.

Microsoft’s own foray into the world of crapware came as the result of the intersection between its antitrust woes and the business practices of Google and Yahoo in the search space.  In order to drive search traffic to their engines Google and Yahoo engaged in signing up PC vendors to make their search engines the default on new PCs and to install their toolbars.  These were huge deals.  The original deal that Dell got to make Google the search default on its PCs may have brought them revenues (almost all pure profit) in excess of $1 Billion (yes, with a B)!  I have no idea what the total value of this deal has been over the years, but obviously it has been huge.  Yahoo had a similar deal with HP, and Google and Yahoo pretty much split the rest of the PC vendors.

Now Microsoft comes along and decides it wants (nay needs) to get into the search game, but it has no control over search defaults.  Sure Microsoft ships Windows Internet Explorer set to use MSN Search/Live Search/Bing, but all the OEMs have been paid to change this before actually shipping their systems.  Microsoft can’t block (or make this difficult) because of antitrust agreements.  And even their ability to include toolbars or other software from separate Microsoft products/services in Windows is subject to scrutiny.  The only option they really have is to use the same tactics as Google and Yahoo, so they start competing to get deals with PC and free software vendors to make Bing the default search engine and install its toolbar.

One of the big early deals was for OSD to win Lenovo away from Google.  Later they would win HP (first printers, then PCs) away from Yahoo.  Microsoft also had a deal with Sun (believe it or not) to distribute the toolbar with Java!  With Java on most of the world’s PCs this was an amazing way to reach the broad user base with Bing.

On a side note, I may have been the person who first brought up approaching HP to do a deal to distribute the (then Live Search) toolbar with HP’s printer software.  I was just thinking about who had really broad reach that wasn’t already locked up and that’s what came to mind.  One of my friends was running Live Search marketing and I suggested it to him.  The actual deal happened so much later that perhaps my suggestion had nothing to do with it.  But still, I accept it as my own little contribution to the crapware problem.

Of course Google would go on to so dominate search that I’m not really sure how much of a difference these deals made.  Or maybe a better way to think about it is that by the time Microsoft decided it had to win these deals it was too late.  In particular it seems like the Dell deal was the last one to really make a difference in that phase of competition for search market share.  Soon thereafter every Internet user had their favorite search engine and search defaults and toolbars could make only fractional differences.

Silverlight had a similar problem in going up against Adobe Flash.  Flash had near universal presence on client PCs, meaning that web developers felt they could safely build sites using it.  To solve the chicken and egg problem (clients didn’t need to install it since no web sites used it, web sites wouldn’t use it because clients didn’t have the bits installed) Developer Division pursued a number of tracks.  Signing up high-profile sporting events to “broadcast” with Silverlight, for example, gave clients incentive to install Silverlight.  Working with those who had Bing toolbar distribution deals to also distribute Silverlight was another tactic.  I don’t know how far Silverlight installs got before it became apparent that the age of Flash and Silverlight were over, but Microsoft did make a substantial dent in getting Silverlight onto client PCs.

One of the differences between what I recall seeing for both Bing and Silverlight and what we see Adobe and Oracle doing today is that I belive all of the Microsoft deals were Opt In.  So the user was offered the Bing Toolbar and defaults, but they had to explicitly check a box to get it.  What is annoying about the current deals that Oracle has for crapware in the Java distribution and Adobe has in the Reader distribution is that they are Opt Out.  Unless you explicitly uncheck a box (or two) you are going to get whatever crapware they are offering.  And the fact that you need to go though this every time you try to install an update (e.g., to address a security problem) makes it totally unforgivable.

With systems increasingly moving towards locked down app stores and plug-in free browsers it would seem that the market for crapware has peaked.  Even Microsoft’s foray into retail has been accompanied by PCs configured with “Microsoft Signature“, thus doing away with crapware.  And yet we see VCs continuing to fund crapware installers like InstallMonetizer.  It makes one wonder what they see that the rest of us are missing.  It makes me hope they lose their investors’ money.

What can Microsoft do to further address the crapware problem?  Well for one they could be very careful about any deals they do for search defaults and toolbars, if they are still doing them at all.  Personally I’d vote for limiting the deals to search defaults in new PCs and drop installing toolbars (unless a user explicitly downloads them).  And I’d kill off use of third-party software distributions to try to install Microsoft offerings (ads and links to Microsoft web pages or the Windows/Windows Phone Stores are a separate and more acceptable solution).

The other things they could do is declare what Oracle and Adobe do with requiring the user to Opt Out of the installation of crapware unacceptable and either block the installers or force the user through a special confirmation process.  Besides some technical difficulty determining what is installation of crapware from installation of dependencies (e.g., a library that the primary software is dependent on) legal issues probably stand in the way.  Would regulatory authorities consider the user benefit of blocking crapware, or just see this as Microsoft returning to 1990s-type practices that they opposed?  I would put money on the latter, which could explain Microsoft inaction on this particular front.

While I hope crapware is on the way out, I think it will be a rather slow demise.  It’s a two-step forward one step back kind of movement.  Windows 8 introduces an app store, directly distributes Flash integrated into IE, and includes a PDF reader (so you don’t even need to run the Adobe Reader installation and thus risk crapware).  But it drops DVD writing support so OEMs will include one from the highest bidder.  Repeated security issues lead to recommendations to remove Java from PCs, but for those who don’t remove it every Java security fix also incorporates a crapware distribution.   And no doubt OEMs will continue to ship PCs with Java pre-installed because Oracle pays them to do it.  As Microsoft grows its own retail outlets it brings Microsoft Signature to more buyers, but OEMs don’t seem to be taking the bait and producing cleaner systems for distribution through other channels.

I hope in five years we’ll be talking about crapware in the context of computing history.  But I have my doubts.

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48 Responses to Crapware, and how we got here

  1. Sumit says:

    The Windows 8 Reset functionality + App Stores + your previous assumption of Windows RT is the ‘desktop’ of the future should combine well to get rid of CrapWare.

    VC funding just shows how much people give a shit about privacy as long as they are making unjustifiable amounts of money (from advertising). Wonder when the advertising gravy train will get off it’s rails… much longer than 5 years I am afraid!

    • halberenson says:

      The OEMs could set up Reset so it returns to the OEM’s factory state…meaning crapware is still there!

      • Sumit says:

        Yikes, I was under the impression Reset was a MS set restore point :-(… Maybe MS can allow OEM OS downloads from TechNet or someplace for registered users (Since they/OEMs have ensured they don’t hand out OS disks anymore)!!! It took me 2 hours to separately download each driver – crapware from HP’s site once I repaved my Dad’s Win7 system. Luckily Win8 had me covered so after the upgrade it’s spick-n-span!

        • halberenson says:

          Since they made provisions for enterprises (or individuals) to create images that Reset would reset to I assume that OEMs can do the same. But of course I’ve had no reason (or machine) to try that on.

          Sent from Windows Mail

          • JimmyFal says:

            Reset, refreshes all the pre-installed crap ware as well. And creating a new user account in some instances brings back the crap ware you uninstalled on a previous account. MS needs more stores.

            It is my daily nightmare to setup new computers for folks only to get rid of the garbage first thing. And although I like Win 8, trying to explain it to folks, without the aid of a single Microsoft Sponsored video tutorial on the Start Screen, leaves me wondering WTF were they thinking on that front? I still have customers that don’t even know what the right button does, now it’s mandatory knowledge just to use Win 8.

            Although I have seen “hints, to swipe from the top to see more” popping up at the top of some of the Bing Apps, this is a fantastic idea, and they need to run with that.

        • The refresh image can be set to whatever you want it to be, even creating multiple images.
          It is pretty much replicating the restore partition functionality but in an official, consistent version rather than it varying from one computer to another.

          • JimmyFal says:

            I tried this using info from an MS blog post a while back but it was before the release, could you link to instructions for that process that have worked for you? Appreciate it, thanks… I know you can set a restore point, but it would nice to be able to make the refresh image without using the command line interface. I always try to look at these things from a consumers point of view. thanks… JF

  2. Jaydel Gluckie says:

    This is a really great article! Thanks for putting into writing the negativity that I feel when I have to keep saying no, don’t install your toolbar that I will never use, And then even more frustration with the time it takes to remove that crap when you accidently forget to uncheck the box. If I found that there was another offering of software that didn’t put crapware in their solution I might be inclined to go with them instead.

  3. MarcelDevG says:

    There’s also the pollution of search results/advertising with crapware.
    It’s funny to see your blog entry concluding with an advert “INSTALL NOW!!”.
    Sometimes those links are very hard to distinguish from real search results of download links.

    • halberenson says:

      So far whenever I’ve tested to see what WordAds was putting on the page it was a video ad. I’ll have to see if I can catch a link like that.

      Sent from Windows Mail

  4. Bob - former DECie says:

    I recently bought a Cowon portable media player that plays FLAC encoded audio files. Cowon also has a free, for its customers, media player/ripper that can rip audio files directly to FLAC and was highly rated. I clicked on the link on their site and was directed to another site to download the software. It actually was an installer for the software. I ran the installer and it had a pre-checked checkbox to make my default search provider and to install the Ask toolbar. I unchecked the checkbox and a pre-checked grayed-out and unchangeable checkbox to install the Ask toolbar appeared. I immediately aborted the installation and found an alternate, but not as convenient FLAC ripper. Needless to say, I will NOT be recommending the Cowon portable media player to anyone and will write a negative review on the site I purchased it.

  5. On the subject of Oracle and Adobe, does anyone know how Adobe Reader and Oracle Java plug-ins manage to bypass Internet Explorer 9 security? If you disable their plug-ins (or set them to require permission on a per site basis), they just keep on working. I expect there is an interesting untold story there.

    • Tom says:

      For Adobe Reader, what you’re disabling is probably not the plugin, but the add-on (Browser Helper Object). The plugin is probably still active on your machine.

      The Java “SSV” add-on does not launch Java. It is actually a security add-on to prevent malicious sites from changing the default Java VM in Windows. Again, the Java plugin is probably still active on your machine.

      I work around both of these problems — plus the Flash one. First, I run PDFXchange, which in my opinion is superior to the Adobe stuff for anything except heavy enterprise usage. Second, I deliberately installed 64-bit Java so that it wouldn’t auto-launch in 32-bit IE. Third, I have Flash disabled in IE, and launch Chrome when I need it.

  6. Tim says:

    This is the very reason that with every new computer I buy, the first thing I do is to format the disk and install a clean copy of the OS. Windows 7 & 8 are quite good about having most or all the necessary drivers anyway.

  7. Andrew says:

    …decides it wants (nee needs)

    nee = Formerly called.

    It should be ‘nay needs’

  8. Drew says:

    I can’t remember how many times I have had to carefully read the fine print on installers, much less save clients from their naivety when they have inadvertently installed some toolbar or ad aggregation software. The shear volume of ridiculous and performance degrading software is out there, all for “free” is staggering.

    It is interesting that to solve this, OS providers (Microsoft, Apple, Android, and even some Linux distros) are moving into the walled garden solution, which for the majority of users is great. For those of us that like to break our machines, the walled garden is something we are constantly trying to dig out of and install Linux on our boxes.

    I can forgive the author’s bias toward his employer, but try as he might to convince the audience otherwise, the stigma of the big, bad Microsoft from the 90’s is still relevant to me.

  9. droopyj says:

    I can’t remember how many times I have had to carefully read the fine print on installers, much less save clients from their naivety when they have inadvertently installed some toolbar or ad aggregation software. The shear volume of ridiculous and performance degrading software is out there, all for “free” is staggering.

    It is interesting that to solve this, OS providers (Microsoft, Apple, Android, and even some Linux distros) are moving into the walled garden solution, which for the majority of users is great. For those of us that like to break our machines, the walled garden is something we are constantly trying to dig out of and install Linux on our boxes.

    I can forgive the author’s bias toward his employer, but try as he might to convince the audience otherwise, the stigma of the big, bad Microsoft from the 90′s is still relevant to me.

    • halberenson says:

      I’m not employed by Microsoft.

      The thing about the Microsoft of the 90s is that Microsoft no longer has either the technical position of being a monopoly nor the power of dominance it once had. Both Apple and Google are equal, if not more, powerful. So Microsoft’s actions need to viewed in a different context that they were back in the 90s. Can they still do things that you don’t like? Of course. But in the 90s users had almost no options. Today users can flee to Android, IOS, OS X, or numerous Linux distributions. So if Microsoft takes an action that pisses off too many customers they hasten their own demise.

      • droopyj says:

        I stand corrected. I apologize for assuming.

        In any event, if Microsoft were to collapse completely, there is not a real alternative. Sure Apple, Android, and Linux et al are out there, but as far as ubiquitous office productivity software, there is not a widely accepted platform on the same level as MSOffice. The vacuum that would be created would be immense and even earth shattering, so I doubt we will be seeing the demise of Microsoft any time soon.

        Sure there are a lot of novel applications out there, the least of which are Google Docs and Libre Office, that are quite fascinating in their capabilities. Which is the problem, all these applications are not necessarily compatible with each others formats. Until we see something like HTML5 or a real XML standardization across all applications (office or otherwise), a divide between Microsoft and everyone else will continue to exist. This makes changing providers painful and costly.

        Honestly, I like the Chromium concept where everything occurs in the cloud and the client only needs to have the various hardware drivers stored locally. The biggest difficulty I have seen is printer interfaces in Linux. With the event of IP printers, it would be good if printer firmware could interpret HTML or XML directly eliminating the need for client printer drivers. I have seen some of the services available from different vendors where you can email your document to your printer, but the service is provided through the printer manufacturer. A better way would be for the printer to be available as a client of the cloud and was just another device available to you. I guess it would be Dropbox-like. Any file dropped into the printer’s folder would be sent directly to the spool.

        Thanks for the article and the discussion, Hal.

        • Brian says:

          Office no longer uses proprietary file formats. The various Office apps save their files in ISO-29500 format files (which are XML-based (actually a bevy of XML files all zipped up together)).

          There’s nothing stopping another vendor from taking on Microsoft and making a competitive product that is feature and format compatible (well, other than the complexity of the feature set and the complexity of the file formats – thought the formats are *way* simpler than the old “structured storage” based formats were).

  10. Hughes Hilton says:

    Android may be a sort of “walled garden” but it’s permissive enough to allow apps to install crapware on phones. Given Android’s market share in smart phones, companies like InstallMonetizer will probably eventually just move most of their efforts to Android if the Windows Store becomes the pervasive software distribution model on Windows. Sadly, that means we will have crapware problems with us for the foreseeable future.

  11. c1ee says:

    Anyone know why OSX doesn’t have this problem? Ok, Apple controls distribution. But what’s stopping Oracle from bundling crapware in their Java installer for OSX? I believe this doesn’t happen on Java for OSX? Why do they target windows but not OSX?

  12. sychrislee says:

    This seems to be a Windows only problem. Does anyone know why OSX doesn’t have this problem also? I can see that Apple controls distribution so OSX installs won’t come included with crapware by default, but that doesn’t stop say Oracle from bundling crapware to their Java installers whenever a user wants to update Java. Why is it that only Windows has this problem but not OSX?

    • halberenson says:

      For a long time Apple shipped Java with OS X. I assume that they have an agreement with Oracle that precludes Oracle trying to install crapware. They also don’t have the antitrust situation and thus could simply block installers from changing search defaults, etc.

      • ExMSFTgirl says:

        Honestly, I hope that Oracle will concentrate more on optimizing Java for business customers and finding ways to change them for using Java. Then, they will not need consumer crapware deals. I personally will be less excited about using Oracle DB and middleware products if I get bugged with crapware every time I update Java on my computer.
        Then again, I was very disappointed when I booted up my new Lenovo X1 and found ton of crap installed – one of the reasons I bought Thinkpad is because my previous Thinkpad came almost clean (only with ThinkPad Utilities which are useful). Needless to say, my next step was clean install of Win8… But I hope the day will come soon when first encounter with a new PC will not require Windows reinstall.

        • halberenson says:

          I think that as Lenovo has moved more into the consumer market they’ve gotten to be more like all the other OEMs.

          It would be awesome if every OEM offered a line of Microsoft Signature PCs. Even if they were pricier in order to make up for the lack of revenue from crapware vendors I believe they’d be hot sellers. The overwhelming majority of the tech and business press would recommend them over their cheaper crapware-laden counterparts. Antitrust settlements likely prohibit Microsoft from aggressively pushing OEMs to do this on x86 (since it would too closely mirror the 1990s tactics to keep third-party “middleware” off of PCs that lead to the DoJ action) which is where they were deemed to have a monopoly. But you can see the level of control they are exerting on the Windows RT experience on ARM, which is considered a different market.

  13. Anonymous Coward says:

    Seems to me an thriving ecosystem, where both app developers and distro packagers are many and where there’s a lot of choice (of course, with the associated effort to choose) is more likely to avoid crapware. Which IME so far it does exquisitely well. I’m talking about Linux, of course.

    We all know (or should know) that monopolies are bad. I think that’s the one and single major advantage of the Linux ecosystem over anything else so far: its open nature makes any sort of monopoly impossible, at least regarding to software development and distribution. Content is a whole different story, and content is usually not bound to an OS/application (although there have been attempts at it), but then again, content is much more like traditional industries than software development and distribution.

  14. Pedro says:

    Don’t forget a particular kind of crapware: all those programs developed by the PC maker (HP, Asus, Acer, IBM, Compaq, Sony, all of them).

    Those things that pretend to help you setting up wireless networks and stuff, while just making things harder because you lose the well-known, default configurations dialogs. Stuff that creeps in from the left-hand side of the screen, 10 times a day, when you accidently hover your mouse near the edge, providing functions you use once a year.

    Extra “Utilities” to keep their own crapware updated…. etc.

    The trouble with removing this stuff is that one always fears some hardware detail is going to be crippled, bluetooth or touchpad won’t work anymore, etc.

    • halberenson says:

      Occasionally something in this area is useful, but I agree that it mostly fits the crapware description. And even the useful stuff is often poorly executed.

      OEMs have definitely looked for ways to differentiate over the years, and Microsoft’s long release cycles have often left them ready to offer new hardware with no OS support for it. That means they have to do the software themselves. Finger print readers and drop protection are a couple of the areas this has happened. Even WiFi, where early Windows support left a lot to be desired. But one does wonder why these things live on. It has been many years (since before Vista) that I saw any benefit to third-party WiFi software.

      I do agree that cleanup is daunting and not in the realm of what most users should try, precisely because if they remove the wrong thing they could back themselves into a corner and need help recovering.

      On a lark I did a clean install of Windows 8 on a 5 year old (Vista-era) Toshiba notebook. The only thing I actually had to go to the Toshiba site and install was a Windows 7 (since they don’t support Windows 8 upgrades for this model) sound driver. This notebook gets very light use, basically as a device my wife uses when she wants to watch TV and do something that she finds too painful on her iPad, so perhaps we’d find something else missing if it were used on a more regular basis. But it is a perfect example of how unnecessary all the stuff Toshiba normally crams into their notebooks is.

  15. says:

    On the subject of Java, here is a thought, lets take our time, no lets deliberately fail to patch all those security holes in Java so that we can “flood” updates every few weeks to ensure they build revenue from the crap-ware they include in their installer. I am one of those that is a geek by profession. Just this week alone I had 3 laptops and 4 PC’s brought to my house by friends and neighbors that got infected. Each one of them got infected by a outdated Java install. Two of them had root-kits on them. Each one of them had multiple toolbars in their browser. Every owner got a lesson in how to properly install updates and avoid the crap-ware slipstream. I have come to the point where even in our company I have completely removed Java and Adobe from all of our workstations and trained our staff to use alternative solutions for PDF. Toolbars in any browser simply is not allowed in our organization. In stead of toolbars we allow multiple home pages one of which can be their favorite search engine.

    • halberenson says:

      I would think the best crapware distribution strategy would be to fix one bug per week so that you had the best combination of frequent runs of the installer but didn’t let things get out of hand so people started uninstalling. But that’s just me being devious 🙂

      Oracle is not a consumer company nor a client device company. It is a Server and Server Apps company. It proves this by squandering the one significant piece of client software it has.

  16. Bob - former DECie says:

    With the recent rumors of Dell going private and Microsoft taking some sort of equity stake in the private company, I wonder if Microsoft would then be able to say to Dell, “All Dell Windows Products will be ‘Signature’ type products with no crapware.”
    This would seem to also give Microsoft access to a good supply chain for components for Surface and other products.
    Sounds like a win for the consumer and a selling point for Microsoft/Dell.

  17. yuhong says:

    I still remember the threads on InstallMonetizer on HN:

  18. yuhong says:

    “But it drops DVD writing support so OEMs will include one from the highest bidder. ”
    You mean DVD decoding?

  19. yuhong says:

    On anti-trust, I’d suggest authorities prohibit competitors to software bundled with Windows to pay OEMs to bundle their software instead.

    • halberenson says:

      That’s exactly the opposite of what the “authorities” want. They want Windows components, particularly components that meet the (weird) U.S. DOJ description of middleware, to be replaceable by third-party alternatives. And since OEMs are the actual customer for Windows, they specifically wanted OEMs to make the choice of which components to replace with which third-party alternatives. And having the third-parties compete for OEM choice by paying them is exactly what the DOJ had in mind.

      • yuhong says:

        OEMs will still have this choice. Third parties just won’t be able to pay them to make the choice.

        • halberenson says:

          But that doesn’t make sense. OEMs will not make the choice unless somehow incented to do so. So what is the “public interest” that a government could use to ban payment to the OEMs? There isn’t one that I can think of. And it is counter-intent for the existing anti-trust public interest.

          • yuhong says:

            MS is not given a fair playing field.

            • halberenson says:

              That’s what the autjorities want!

              • yuhong says:

                Really? Is that because they are broken?

                • halberenson says:

                  The authorities did, and to some extent continue, to want Microsoft’s ability to compete impeded so as to prevent use of its monopoly power. Now, one can certainly say that it no longer has monopoly power and that any action to try to exert influence in the way it did in the 1990s would hurt it more than it would help. In fact, one could say that Windows RT (where it is not subject to the consent decree) is proof of its loss of influence. No alternate browsers or other “middleware” allowed is amongst the restrictions that make it seem superfluous to buyers. Severe limits on what OEMs can do to Windows RT devices left the OEM community largely unexcited about participating. If you implemented those same restrictions back into Windows for x86 many OEMs would simply abandon the market. And it would accelerate users dropping PCs entirely when their existing ones needed replacement. Businesses would move towards Linux desktops while consumers would mostly find IOS and Android devices adequate.

                  • yuhong says:

                    And I once proposed implementing similar restrictions to Windows for x86 on Ars, except that they would be allowed to be disabled by users *after* the machine shipped to them.

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