I like to think that most of us who use computers are reasonably bright and responsible. So I get really irritated by the mindset of some technology vendors who insist that treating us like children is not only okay, but also the responsible thing for them to do.
I spoke to various engineers from anti-virus companies last week about a bizarre incident that caused a fair amount of pain to Windows users who meant to install a Java update and got stuck with an annoying security update that they neither wanted nor needed.
I'll get to the details in a bit, but I was struck by this remark: "I want it (the AV program) to be so simple my mother won't have a problem with it," said one engineer. Aside from the implicit sexism and ageism (who says older women can't be as competent as younger men?) the answer reeked of the patronizing users needed to be protected from themselves attitude I find so irritating.
Last week's incident began when some Windows users opted to install a routine update to Java, a programming language Oracle inherited when it purchased Sun Microsystems. For some reason, Oracle decided to bundle McAfee Security Scan Plus along with the Java update. The software is installed by default unless you notice and uncheck a little box to opt out.
The security program checks the PC to see if it has antivirus and firewall software installed and if they're both up-to-date. Various popup windows open from time to time and you're prompted to accept licensing terms, all of which use up system resources, slowing the PC down. The only way to get away from the darn thing is to uninstall it using the Windows control panel.
It turns out that Adobe did the same thing, bundling the scan program with some updates to its Reader application. Queried by our colleagues at Computerworld, a McAfee spokesman said: "McAfee believes it's better to be protected than unprotected, therefore we are offering this as a default." Translation: We don't trust you to do it yourself.
This incident has more lessons in it than a high school algebra textbook, not the least of which is the aforementioned patronizing attitude of tech vendors. Fortunately, it also suggests as few actions that you can take to avoid this sort of nonsense.
1. Pay attention before, during and after you download
My one-time colleague Andrew Brandt, a former tech journalist now working for Webroot, a security vendor, warns that the practice of stealth bundling is becoming all too common. A number of companies make a living by striking deals with vendors and tricking user into downloading all sorts of junk.
For example, you may see a big button on a Web site that looks like it will play a video when you click it. When you do, it brings up a cheesy flash animation that says you need a particular codec to run it. If you say okay, you'll go through a number of confusing steps and wind up with a copy of Real Player as well as a codec (an application that lets you play video) on your PC. Real Player has its good points, but it also winds up creating a lot of system-slowing traffic by frequently grabbing information from the Web and pushing it to you.
Generally you can defend yourself by paying attention before you download anything. In particular, says Brandt, look at the fine print and various boxes that are usually checked by default, meaning you've agreed to something you may not like at all.