Among the list of things I cant stand (and, if you read this column regularly, you know thats a pretty long list) are the sleazy, ridiculous and incomprehensible end-user license agreements that software companies hide behind. As Ive written before, these EULAs are basically designed to protect software companies against their own incompetence (such as bugs or security holes in their products) and to limit how a customer can use a product he or she legitimately purchased.
To call a EULA an "agreement" is a huge joke: It cant be considered an agreement when only one side sets the parameters and the only opportunity to view and then disagree with a products EULA is after the other side has already paid for the product. To put it simply, EULAs are evil. But until I become Lord Emperor of the Earth and can outlaw these grievous "agreements," they are most likely here to stay.
So, since we have to put up with them anyway, it would be great if software EULAs actually did at least one thing that helped out end users—if they were, as Maxwell Smart might have put it, used for niceness instead of evilness.
I know what youre thinking: EULAs are all about saying "no" to users. How could they be used for good? But we regular end users arent the only target audience for EULAs. Many EULAs are also written with developers in mind. In fact, the no-reverse-engineering clause in nearly all EULAs is targeted at developers. For example, no matter what level of Windows developer you are—from giant company to garage coder—you need to own at least one copy of Windows to build applications for it. And, if you own, installed and use Windows, youve agreed to the Windows EULA.
So why cant EULAs be used for good, setting developers on the path to coding righteousness? Why, for example, couldnt the Windows XP EULA state that developers cant build an application that 1) installs without explicit interactive permission from users, 2) doesnt include a standard uninstall option, and 3) changes registry and system settings so as to run without the knowledge of the end user?
If such mandates were in the EULA, then Microsoft would be on our side in the fight against spyware. As we battled against the scummy purveyors of spyware, right at our side would be Bill and Steve and their legion of lawyers, bringing down the spyware vendors for violating the Windows EULA.
OK, now you might be thinking, "Jim, isnt this a seriously slippery slope? Once vendors start controlling how applications run on their systems, where will it stop?" All I can say to that is, dont talk to me about slippery slopes when were already halfway down a giant water slide.
There are EULAs out there now that force users to upgrade, that limit what users can do with a product and that even control what applications can be used in conjunction with a product. Heck, the EULA for "Longhorn" (er, Windows Vista), working hand in hand with the operating systems expected "trusted" computing features, will most likely not only tell users when, where and how they can view digital content but also could even force them to buy new hardware to view that content.
So why not use EULAs to make developers play nice and stop making Windows look bad? Linux and Mac OS remain pretty much unblemished by spyware, but spyware-developing losers have turned Microsofts baby into a massively infected, slow-moving beast that has actually compelled some users to throw their systems away.
Ah, who am I kidding? I mean, Microsoft just came close to buying one of the biggest vendors of spyware/adware/superkeenware that you may have accidentally installed. Eventually, Microsoft will buy such a company, and it will probably write into the product EULAs that you must let spyware watch everything you do.
When it comes down to it, EULAs arent just evil; theyre irredeemably evil. So, Ill just have to keep on fighting against these stupid so-called agreements and the way they attack honest end users. This, of course, means Ill be constantly facing disappointment, ridicule and nasty click-through agreements.
And, as Maxwell Smart himself would have defiantly said, "and loving it."
Labs Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.