Shovelware And The Average Consumer PC

Everybody reading this should know what shovelware is. It’s all the pre-installed software that major PC manufacturers put on their PCs, aside from the operating system. And I’m sure there will be a fair amount of disagreement over its usefulness. I will let you know where I stand right off the bat: I hate the stuff.

I’ve just come off a couple of intense weeks of gigs mostly involving helping my clients transition from outdated PCs to new laptops and desktops. It never ceases to amaze me how much extra junk is stuffed on the typical consumer PC. It doesn’t even really matter what brand it is, they are all doing it and have been for years.

Sure, one could argue that it’s a good thing that they include a trial version of a name-brand anti-virus app. But how many of you have rebooted a new PC to see that annoying QuickBooks guy inviting you to try the software out? And don’t get me started on AOL. Looking at the desktop on a newly-booted consumer PC is like driving to the Wisconsin Dells, billboards everywhere, each one shouting for your attention.

So here is my real beef. Despite the advances in processor speeds and hard drive capacities, cramming all this stuff on a PC does come at a price. It causes confusion on the part of the consumer, and it can drag down the performance of their brand new PC. The next time you unbox and set up a new PC, go to the task manager and see how many processes are running. Way more than necessary.

Here is a good illustration of the frustration factor. One of my customers is getting into digital photography and his old Win98 P-III laptop was clearly not up to the task. I helped him select a new laptop and get it set up when it arrived on his doorstep. The manufacturer already had a basic photo editing tool pre-installed (more than one, as I recall). Plus Windows XP has its native photo handling capabilities. Install the camera-maker’s software, and you have potentially three or four different ways of handling photos, each with different interfaces and capabilities. The same holds true for MP3s and the like – there are often several programs competing to be your default digital audio player. I’ve even seen some PCs with Microsoft Office “Preview Edition” which will run for 60 days before time-bombing. When I installed a licensed full version of Office 2003 Student and Teacher edition, it wasn’t even smart enough to automatically remove the preview edition as part of the install process.

I’m all about choice – when I am able to make it (not have it made for me), and when the choices are clear. I realize you can uninstall much of the shovelware that’s pre-installed to streamline things. But why don’t manufacturers include a Sampler CD or DVD that you can run and choose to install items only what you want to? That can’t add very much to the per unit cost. Or if you are doing a build-to-order, have an option to opt-out of the extra stuff and only get what you specify. Can you even get a consumer Dell without some flavor of productivity app already on it?

Apple is not immune to the shovelware syndrome by any means. But at least it’s clear how you do digital photos, videos, and music “out of the box”: iLife ’05. With your typical PC, it’s not so clear cut because of redundant pre-installed programs. Which is why when it comes to my own PCs, I either (a) build my own box as I did for my primary desktop or (b) wipe the factory load and install my own OS and apps by hand, which I did with my HP laptop.

Tell me, what do you like or dislike about shovelware?