Shovelware

So, by this point we hopefully have all heard about spyware, adware, malware. And we all know that this is nasty stuff, and that we should avoid having it on our systems – they tend to slow things down, eat resources, get in the way, destabilize things, what have you. Bad stuff.

Today, I want to cover shovelware. Shovelware is that software which is of such low quality or is otherwise so nearly useless to you (or has an atrocious usefulness to resources ratio) that just about the only way the companies can get it in front of you is to pay hardware manufacturers to pre-install it on new machines, or otherwise bundle it with other software you do want. If you don’t get a choice to install it or not, it’s probably shovelware. Shovelware takes up resources, but usually isn’t as malevolent as spyware – it’s not trying to record keystrokes or the web pages you visit. But it does cost you. And often it ends up in front of you because someone somewhere along the supply chain didn’t have the right motivations – they weren’t thinking about how to help you, the customer, but how to extract the biggest revenue dollars. Maybe some engineer stopped being excited about going to work and it just became a job.

Who knows?

I’ve hit a bunch of examples of shovelware lately. It bugs me, because I like a neat, clean system. A clean system performs better, feels better. And logs in a whole bunch faster.

The first resource offense most shovelware commits is the task tray icon on Windows. Hey, some software really has a legitimate reason for starting up when I log in and having an icon there. Palm Hot Sync, a virus scanner, Microsoft AntiSpyware – these all have a legitimate reason for starting up when I log in, and might as well have an easy access icon. But QuickTime? Java? C’mon, these things can be lazy started. And don’t insult me by giving me an option to hide the darned icon. That’s not what I want – I want you to not eat resources just because I logged in. Some of these things are even more pointless. HP’s printer drivers now install an additional little tray icon utility, and I don’t see the value add – everything it gives you access to is available elsewhere as far as I can figure out. But can I stop it from loading at startup? Is some critical service wrapped up in that resource theft? Do I really need some WinCinema manager in the taskbar tray making login take an extra 10 seconds? And just why is it so hard to keep Microsoft Messenger from starting up?

Of course, there’s also the Start menu pollution and disk space munching that happens. I needed to burn a CD from an .iso image on my Media Center the other day, and the program I would normally use (CDRWin) doesn’t like that drive. So, I’d heard about Nero, decided to give that a try. First, the download was 100MB – crazy. Clearly, there’s other junk in there. When I installed the trial, it installed all sorts of shovelware I didn’t want (now, I don’t know if what they installed was good stuff or not – it was just useless *for me*, and that’s the key). I just wanted the burning component. But because I couldn’t just get and buy the burning component, I gave up, uninstalled Nero, and searched a little harder, finding CD Burner XP Pro. Not only was it free, it worked and didn’t come with any shovelware. Nice.

Heck, I think shovelware is one of the things that hurt RealPlayer so much. Once they started bundling all the shovelware with the player, I gave up on it. Who needs all that garbage – some of which verges on adware – when there are ways of getting media content without it?

Then there’s the shovelware that comes with a new system. Both Dell and HP are bad about this (I’m sure others are as well, I just don’t have direct experience with them). It’s why many of us have a policy of wiping out and installing from a *real* Windows XP install CD right after getting a new machine, and why I think most of those “restore” disks are practically useless. My policy is to never buy a machine that doesn’t come with a real Windows install CD – a policy I violated with my Media Center PC, and of course ended up regretting when I restored it to try and stabilize it only to find that all the shovelware HP was installing meant the system didn’t even start out too terribly stable. Yuck. Wouldn’t it be nice if a system just coming out of the box was actually *clean*, and not the mucked up, dirty, registry scrambled mess that most manufacturers think pass for acceptable these days?

Of course, there’s also the case of software that starts out useful and devolves. I like my MusicMatch radio, but over the past two years, the darned thing has gone from eating 10% of my machine CPU to just about half. I don’t know what you do to waste that sort of time, but that’s getting near the limit of tolerability – that is software that is on the verge of becoming shovelware for me (though I really like having music playing while I work, so I can tolerate quite a bit). MP3 players tend to skirt this edge more than other programs it seems, grabbing memory and keystrokes and otherwise doing things that get in the way.

Now, I’m sure that any and all this stuff may be useful to someone, somewhere. But it isn’t to me, and I don’t want to have to go digging around afterward shutting it off. I know conventional wisdom says that modern machines have enough power and memory for all this stuff, but there is just so much of this junk that it’s death by a thousand paper cuts. Every percentage of CPU actually counts – it could make the difference between a clean and glitchy video capture. And every chunk of RAM that is forcefully kept alive counts – when that blue line (free RAM) in my Performance Monitor hits 10MB, things are going to come to a crawl (I always have Performance Monitor running on Windows and X Resource Graph running on Mac, though Activity Monitor is OK in a pinch).

I suppose the worst part is that it’s just so darned hard to keep a machine clean. Yeah, I go into Add/Remove Programs regularly and clean up old junk – but sometimes things are bundled in ways that you can’t get rid of the bad without getting rid of the good. And even if you could, you still have to have a good registry cleaner because so many of the uninstallers are half-hearted efforts. And you shouldn’t really have to pull open the Program Files directory to go cleaning up disk files left behind, but often do. It used to be that you’d have to completely re-install Windows 98 every so often because the system itself became unstable. Now, while Windows XP itself is stable, it’s getting to the point where you have to do a re-install just to really get rid of all the vestiges of all that shovelware.

Sigh.

-Scott