For followers of "the customer always comes first" cult, check out this great deal, available now at your local Microsoft Store: For just $99, a Windows genius will clear your Windows 7 desktop or laptop of OEM-installed bloatware.
Does it get any richer than this?
The average cost of a Windows PC notebook, as of February 2012, was just $513, according to market researcher NPD. In other words, making your Windows machine run well out of the box only requires paying Microsoft a 20% premium.
Let's contrast. Apple continues to generate record profits from its retail stores--minimalist, white-walled temples to product design and packaging, staffed by "geniuses" who help people configure their Apple devices for free. Meanwhile, the Microsoft "Signature" retail cleaning offer involves paying extra to nuke out-of-the-box junk. Now there's a customer experience destined for success.
To be clear, Microsoft also sells "Signature" PCs at its own chain of 22 retail stores and e-commerce shop. These PCs, which are billed as having been "optimized for top performance," don't hide their OEM origins, but subtract much of the added junkware. "We optimize all of our PCs with Microsoft Signature by removing unwanted software, adding antivirus, and tuning it for top speed," says the Microsoft website. "Brand new PCs should look and act brand new. That's why we remove all the unnecessary trialware and sample software that clutters up your PC to make it cleaner, faster and more fun to use."
Wall Street Journal technology review guru Walter Mossberg has advised consumers to consider buying the Signature version of any Windows machine. That's based on his tests of before-and-after--OEM versus Signature--laptops from HP, Sony, and Samsung, in which he found only slight speed gains from Signature, but a much better user experience.
Microsoft does include its own extra software on Signature machines by default: Windows Live Essentials (free email, instant messaging, photo-sharing, blogging), a Zune music and video player application, Microsoft Security Essentials, Internet Explorer "with Bing optimization," as well as starter versions of Microsoft Word and Excel. But upon request, Microsoft will remove its Signature add-ons.
Thankfully, few enterprise users see any OEM bloatware, thanks to the IT practice of wiping all new machines and installing a clean, junk-free client build. But for machines we use at home, excising bloatware on a new PC can be difficult. PC makers typically don't spell out which drivers or applications are necessary for their machines to function. Tellingly, Microsoft says its Signature service is backed by a specialized team, which investigates just what can be removed, versus what must be left present--but perhaps hidden in the Start menu to leave the desktop less cluttered.
You'll have to budget more than just a few minutes with the Windows "Add/Remove Programs" utility to remove bloatware on your own. One option is to look to dedicated bloatware-annihilation software such as PC Decrapifier, which costs one-quarter of Microsoft's service.
To recap: Microsoft builds an operating system that's tuned for high performance, OEM makers take money from third-party software developers to ship you a PC loaded with junk that slows it down, then you get to pay Microsoft to clean up the junk. Consumers are the clear losers here.
But Microsoft isn't the first company to attempt to charge extra with regards to bloatware purging. Notably, Sony in 2008 began offering a $50 "Fresh Start" option for some Vaio laptops. Aimed at professional users, the "upgrade" was sold as a way to maximize performance and hard drive space, especially in light of reviews highlighting the laptops' horrible startup times. After a public outcry, Sony backpedaled, and began offering the "clean" client build as a free option at the time of purchase.
Bloatware, however, isn't limited to the Windows realm. Most Android phones, for example, contain added junkware. Unfortunately, this software--which equipment manufacturers will install, then rarely if ever update--can introduce security vulnerabilities.
Last October, for example, security researcher Trevor Eckhart discovered that a logging application added by HTC to its smartphones could be inappropriately accessed by an attacker, who would be able to see a copy of all data logged. HTC pushed an emergency patch to fix the issue. But actually eliminating OEM add-ons requires relying on hardware hackers who create software to root the phones.
For Android lovers, there's an alternative. Google sells Nexus phones with just the Android operating system, and they regularly take top marks for design, performance, and security. Thus it's no surprise that last week, the news broke that Google plans to sell more phones using this model. "This is clearly a bid to get rid of the carrier-branded bloatware that many users don't like and often don't use," says Chris Spera at BYTE.
Here's to a new consumer rallying cry: Ban the bloat.
Employees and their browsers might be the weak link in your security plan. The new, all-digital Endpoint Insecurity Dark Reading supplement shows how to strengthen them. (Free registration required.)