The Google Crapplet

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2007-05-25

The Google Crapplet

Its SOP when you buy a new OEM PC: First, you install all the updates to Windows and Office since your system was built (not as big a problem as it used to be), then you delete all the garbage your OEM preloaded with Windows on your computer.

This software, often called "crapware" or "crapplets" in the business, can be a real pain to users. They slow down new computers, make them unstable and can cause downright confusion.

Google has started its own security blog. Click here to read more.

Word is spreading about the latest development in crapware: An obscure software component on Dell PCs redirects certain browser operations to a special Google search page, one overflowing with ads. The component, officially called the "Browser Address Error Redirector," takes over on address bar typos and other errors and thus interferes with some other software that performs the same function more transparently.

Its getting hard enough these days to avoid the Google Toolbar, which is pushed on you by many other packages, including the Java runtime. But this is unrelated to the toolbar. OpenDNS, one of the companies whose software is impeded by the BAER, says that the program "borders on being spyware."

Crapware makes money for OEMs. You pay to get a copy of Microsoft Office on your computer, but almost everything else, from the 90-day trial of Norton Antivirus to the AOL client to the QuickBooks trial to the Sonic RecordNow software to the Yahoo! Music Jukebox is on there because the software company paid the OEM to put it there. It goes further: Lets say you "convert" that copy of Norton Antivirus and buy the full subscription: the OEM gets a cut for that, too.

In this case, Google is probably paying Dell to put this software on the PC, but they are also probably getting a cut of the ad revenue, which gives them both a good incentive to overload the upper part of the page with advertising.

So crapware isnt in there to do you a favor, its in there to make money for the OEM. Yes, they have an interest in you having a high-performing and stable PC, just as they have an interest in world peace, but its a viciously competitive business and they need whatever revenues they can get.

Next page: Hope for the future

Hope for the future

Still, people get mad. The anti-crapware movement is nothing new. For years many observers have complained about OEMs pre-overloading their PCs with unwanted programs to the point that theyre slow on the day you get them. I think the tide is going to turn soon. Look for OEMs to start offering more flexibility to customers, perhaps up to the point of "naked Windows PCs," meaning just Windows is installed, as an option.

Several months ago, Dell started a site called Idea Storm asking customers what they wanted in Dell products. This site may have had a lot to do with Dells offering of Linux preloaded on consumer PCs (will we soon have open-source crapware for them?).

But before the site got slashdotted, one of the top suggestions was that preinstalled software must be optional. The original poster suggested that OOBE (out of box experience) include a screen where you choose which of the preloaded programs should be installed. I have a better idea: put that screen on the Web page when you order the system.

Anything thats not in a standard Windows installation or part of an essential device driver should be in this list. Some things are a better idea to remove than others; for instance, if you buy a DVD drive, perhaps you want that crippled version of WinDVD. But you may not want three extra toolbars in Internet Explorer. These things are subjective. There was a time just a few years ago when the idea of bundling a Web browser with PCs was controversial. The important thing is to give the customer control over the configuration of the PC.

And it looks like Dell listened. This is about as low-key an announcement as youll find, but the "preinstalled software must be optional" suggestion is tagged as "**COMING SOON**" on the Dell site. I take this to mean that they will be offering some version of user control of crapware, although what and when are not specified.

Google has a unique perspective on the problem of Web-based exploits, but is it a useful one? Click here to read more.

Im especially curious what they will do about the revenue problem: How will they make up the money lost from users who dont want the crapware? I dont expect them to just eat it or to presume that they will make it up in extra sales because of the feature. Perhaps they will make it up in lower support costs.

This is a good thing for security as well as the general user experience with PCs. The less stuff is running on the PC the more stable it will be. Lets hope Dell does the right thing and that it becomes a market imperative for all OEMs to make a similar offer.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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