Google's Latest Bundle of Goodies Is Worth Opening

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 26, 2006

As if trying to index the entire World Wide Web wasn't work enough, Google now wants to tackle an even harder job: fixing the sorry state of so many Windows computers.

Last month, it introduced a free bundle of Windows XP software called Google Pack. This collection -- labeled "beta" like many Google offerings but presented largely as a finished product -- combines Web, security and multimedia programs from Google and other firms with a Google Updater application to herd all this software onto a computer and keep it current afterwards.

Unlike many Internet freebies, Google Pack delivers genuine value. But like many Internet freebies, it demands a little tinkering for it to deliver its potential.

The Pack ( http://pack.google.com/ ) consists of five Google programs (Google Earth, Google Desktop, the Picasa photo organizer, the Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer and the new Google Pack Screensaver), a version of Mozilla Firefox with the Google Toolbar built in, the Ad-Aware SE Personal spyware remover, a copy of Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2005 SE that includes six months of updates and Adobe Reader 7. You can also remove any of these components or add any of four optional ingredients -- the Google Talk and Trillian instant messengers, RealPlayer and a gallery of art images to use as desktop backgrounds or screensaver images -- before beginning the download.

(The presence of so much Googleware should explain why the Mountain View, Calif., company isn't doing this just out of charity; a Google Pack user will never be far from links to Google sites and services.)

Installing Google Pack will take a while, even over broadband -- it added up to about 72 megabytes on one laptop, almost 45 minutes of downloading and installing -- but involves far less work than you'd think possible. Once you kick off the process, Google Updater quietly fetches each program on the list (starting with the smallest files first, so dial-up users don't have to wait hours before getting some benefit), installing one as it downloads the next without making you answer a single dialog or choose a single option. It's a supremely comfortable upgrade, as long as you don't mind each application getting parked in its usual slot in Windows' Program Files directory.

If you have older versions of Google Pack's applications loaded, Google Updater will replace them with newer copies automatically. You can also evict any of these programs by clicking an "Uninstall" link.

But after this seemingly frictionless install-fest concludes, don't think that no further work is required. The Google Pack copy of Norton AntiVirus -- already one version behind what's sold in stores now -- won't download data on new viruses, much less do so automatically, until you click through a few settings screens. Ad-Aware requires its own configuration process before it can squelch any spyware on your PC.

And although Google Updater promises to keep this collection of programs up to date automatically, how it does so can seem a mystery. It offers no "check for updates now" command or even an indication of when it might do so on its own. That's because there is no fixed schedule -- it varies from computer to computer, based on variables such as the time since the last update of a program-- and the entire process is subject to remote control from Google HQ anyway.

Company spokeswoman Sonya Boralv explained in an e-mail: "Thus far, we have been targeting updates to only a fraction of our users to test the update process and ensure there are no issues as the Updater is still in beta. We plan to roll out updates more broadly within the next few weeks and then it will be done regularly on an ongoing basis."

Until that kicks in, Google Pack users will be on their own. Some of Google Pack's component programs can stay current automatically (for instance, Norton AntiVirus and Firefox) but others require user intervention.

The selection of software in Google Pack could also benefit from a few revisions. Many of these applications can improve any computer -- in particular, Firefox, the finest Windows browser available; Picasa, which makes editing digital photos simple and fun; and Google Desktop, which finds files on your PC in seconds. But some others are second- or third-best choices.

For example, although Norton Anti-Virus's six months of free updates exceed the 90 days of coverage thrown in with most bundled anti-virus programs, the competing Avast and AVG programs include free updates for life. Ad-Aware does little to stop spyware from invading a computer and is way too panicky about describing what evidence it does find.

Meanwhile, other categories of essential software didn't even make Google's packing list. Given how many Windows users read their e-mail in Microsoft's grotesquely obsolete Outlook Express, why not include a desktop mail program?

Google's Boralv said that the Google Video Player -- needed to watch programs offered on its new online video store -- will be added to the Pack "very soon" but wouldn't specify any other additions.

The biggest problem with Google Pack, however, is that it must exist at all. Why does a Windows computer need this much aftermarket software in the first place? (You certainly don't need to install a half-dozen extra programs to ready a Mac for basic home use.) Maybe it's not all Microsoft's job -- but then computer vendors ought to step up. Instead, most seem content to stuff machines with the same obsolete, irrelevant junk.

If Google Pack shames any of these companies into improving their software bundle -- or if any elect to ship the Google Pack itself, as Dell is reportedly considering -- Google will have made a major contribution.

In the meantime, this collection just might save a lot of trouble for anybody who's ever helped a friend move into a new computer. Instead of spending hours downloading programs' installers, burning them to a CD and writing out instructions, you can just point people to the Google Pack site.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.


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