So you’ve just bought the best Windows laptop, you’ve gritted your teeth through Cortana’s obnoxiously cheery setup narration, and the above screenshot is the Start menu you’re presented with. Exactly how special do you feel as you watch the tiles animating and blinking at you like a slots machine? I’ll tell you how I felt as I was getting to grips with the Huawei MateBook X Pro for the first time: perplexed. Perplexed that this level of bloatware infestation is still a thing in 2018, especially on a computer costing $1,499 and running an OS called Windows 10 “Pro.” Why are we still tolerating this?
The blight of undesired software and prompts is all around us
Before anyone assumes that this is just a rant against and about Windows, I’ll happily include Apple’s iOS and some varieties of Google’s Android in my scorn. The blight of undesired software and prompts is all around us. If I buy an iPhone, Apple pins the Apple Watch app on my home screen, whether I have the compatible watch or not. Or if I go to Apple’s nemesis, Samsung forces its Bixby assistant into everything I do with a Galaxy S.
Cloud storage is a common cause for unnecessary nags. I had to decline Microsoft’s offers to activate auto-backup to OneDrive three times before Windows 10 got the message. If I use the majority of Apple’s free 5GB of iCloud storage, I’ll get a daily reminder that I can pay to get more. And Google’s Photos app is so thirsty for any images I generate with my phone that it will ask me if I want to automatically back up new folders I create (such as ones for screenshots or downloaded photos). I understand that for some people and in some instances those prompts will be helpful, but those are exceptions to the rule. And the rule seems to be that companies are trying to beat us into submission through mental attrition.
To my mind, bloatware is any piece of software within an operating system that receives a disproportionate amount of prominence or system resources relative to its functionality. We can have debates about whether pushy notifications about ancillary services from the OS maker necessarily constitute bloat, but there’s little room for disagreement when it comes to third-party additions. Candy Crush Saga on Windows, the News Republic app on HTC phones, and the Oath bundle that Samsung preloads on Verizon Galaxy S9s all serve corporate interests before those of the user. Oath CEO Tim Armstrong, speaking to Reuters, leaves no doubt about it: “This gets ads one step closer to being direct to consumer. You can’t be more direct than being on the mobile phone home screen and app environment.”
Again I ask, why do we tolerate this?
The best answer I can come up with is a lack of genuine alternatives. The most horrific examples of carrier bloatware that I know of come from Korea. I’ve reviewed flagship LG phones with as many as 54 (fifty-four!) carrier-imposed bloatware apps, accompanied by carrier branding on the box, a carrier splash screen integrated into the boot-up sequence, and even a carrier-specific home screen theme. Presenting such a device to people more familiar with the American or European smartphone markets draws gasps of surprised revulsion. But that’s the thing: if everyone in Korea is used to seeing a thicket of carrier apps and nonsense preloaded on their phone, if no one is showing consumers a better option, they just accept it as an unhappy status quo and get on with life.
Just because we’re used to bloat doesn’t make bloat okay
I get the feeling that Windows users are now in a similar class. They know they’ll get the occasional Start menu ad popping up, they know that they’ll have to spend half an hour just disabling, uninstalling, and unpinning the superfluous crap their PC comes with, and they’ve grown to accept that situation.
But the truth is that we don’t all have to continue to tolerate the crappy status quo. Google’s Pixelbook and the family of Chromebook devices from traditional PC makers give a great counterexample to the overbearing Windows experience. I can have a Pixelbook up and running in roughly the same time as it would take to brew a good cup of tea. Google’s Pixel phones are hard to find in stores, but they also present a version of Android that is far worthier of a user’s trust than the typical, overly inquisitive Android OEM variation.
Trust is an especially important theme in consumer tech this year. Revelations about Facebook’s negligence with user data, Android OEMs outright lying to their users about software updates, and the recent bizarre example of Samsung phones spontaneously texting photos to random contacts have raised the requirement for trustworthiness as well as high specs from a device maker. Few things erode that trust quite as quickly as a user interface designed to bait you into clicking on some ad that’s useless to you.
Android OEMs have tiny profit margins and pressure from carriers — what’s Microsoft’s excuse?
I have some sympathy for Android phone makers, who are faced with microscopic profit margins and a shortage of their own software expertise. But Microsoft is still a giant of a company, and it really doesn’t need however much it’s making by giving Candy Crush Saga and its ilk prominent landing spots on the Windows Start menu. When I see such things built into Windows, I’m immediately put off by the cynical attempt to cash in on every user. It’s the exact opposite of what Apple tries to achieve with its macOS, which is far from perfect, but it nevertheless gives you a greater sense that you’re an important and valued customer.
Not everyone among us has an unlimited choice of gadgets to pick from, but those who do should insist on having the cleanest, lightest experience, stripped of the most pernicious forms of bloatware. Many already do, and that’s prompted Microsoft and others to act to curtail the most egregious forms of bloat, but the battle is far from won. $1,500 laptops and $1,000 phones should be all about you, the user, and anything that detracts from that should be spurned and sneered at until its maker is compelled to do better.