Is It Software or Is It Spam? It's Both!

PC World
Saturday, February 18, 2006; 12:10 AM

Paradox: As software increasingly becomes available for free, developers keep trying to foist more of it on us--along with lots of extras (call it, oh, say, spam) we don't need. In the days when we paid real dollars for software, all we got in the box was what we paid for. Now that the stuff is increasingly backed by advertising and by co-marketing deals (but not by technical support), we hapless users have to spend our time fending off vendors' constant offers to become our new best friends.

Take what I've come to think of as checks without balances. Getting free software downloads from major developers who should have better business ethics often involves navigating Web pages with prefilled check boxes designed to get you on corporate junk-mail lists unless you notice and say nay. Worse, the boxes are sometimes obscured unless you scroll around carefully. Rule: If a box is checked before you get there, it's for something you don't want.

And now check marks apply to the latest annoyance, the unwanted bundle. You're urged to download a new or upgraded program, but you also get stuck with some piece of fluff that's trying to boost its market share by tagging along for the ride. True, you can generally uninstall the junk when you're done, but why should you have to waste your precious time on the download, the installation, and the undo--not to mention the diagnosis and repair if something goes wrong? It's software as spam.

Bundling is particularly egregious when it occurs in conjunction with products like Adobe Reader, Apple QuickTime, and Macromedia Flash Player, all of which amount to essential system-level software in the Web era. Flash and Reader have been coupled with the Yahoo Toolbar, which I don't happen to need; QuickTime has been paired with iTunes, which I will not allow on my machine after one version crashed the computer severely.

Usually you can obtain the software you want without all the excess baggage, but you have to be careful. On the QuickTime download page, you must ignore the giant "Free Download Now" button and instead click the subtle hidden-in-plain-sight "QuickTime Standalone Installer" link. With the Adobe and Macromedia products, you go to the respective download pages and uncheck unwanted items. With some upgrades, even experienced hands may believe that you have to take the bundled stuff too. And depending on the product, sometimes you really do.

Google Pack, Google's collection of its own software offerings (such as Google Earth and Picasa) and assorted others (such as Ad-Aware and Norton Antivirus) is far from perfect--there are plenty of reasons why at this writing it's still called a beta--but at least it lets you pick precisely which programs you want to download. Even after you click on the enormous "Download Google Pack" button, you gain access to a link that's prominently labeled "Add or remove software" and a page that allows you to uncheck every item all at once so that you can go back and check the ones (or even one) you want. That's a refreshing approach in an age when everybody else seems to want to ram their entire multimeal deals down users' throats.

What's next? Bet that it won't be based on Google's good-citizen approach. Expect check boxes that you can't uncheck. Or installations that happen without your knowledge or approval. Oh, wait a minute--we have those already. They're called spyware.

© 2006 PC World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved