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The 7 Most Annoying Developments in Software


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Posted: Fri Dec 14, 2007 18:46
Author: Blocked
From antipiracy measures to built-in nagging, today's software often comes with features that drive you nuts. Here are the irritations we'd really like to zap.
1. The Antipiracy Inquisition
I get that software publishers want to be paid for their work, and that the honor system wasn't working. But some of the technologies designed to keep us honest have to rank among the most annoying schemes ever to grace our monitors.

Take product keys, widely used by the likes of Adobe, Microsoft, Palm developers, Intuit and others. The problem with these keys is that whenever you switch machines or have to reinstall an app for any reason, they're never handy--leaving us, in some cases, to the tender mercies of customer support (or with no recourse at all).

If there's no way around product keys, I wish more companies would follow the lead of those that tie licenses to your e-mail address, so that if disaster strikes you can just download the app and get a key by typing in your address and a password that you create. Adobe does this for its registered customers, as do some game download sites.

And no discussion of antipiracy measures can be complete without mentioning, yet again, Microsoft's incredibly obnoxious Windows Genuine Advantage, which lets Microsoft check for counterfeit copies of its OS--that is, when it's working properly (you can read PC World Editor in Chief Harry McCracken's thoughts about last summer's meltdown of WGA authentication servers). It's incredibly irritating that, to get nearly anything Windows-related from Microsoft (the Windows Defender antispyware app, for instance, or noncritical updates), you have to prove to the company's satisfaction (over and over again) that your copy of Windows is authentic.

2. DRM Confusion
Digital Rights Management--the copy and playback protections on digital media--are annoying on so many levels I can't begin to list them all here. But topping the list is the lack of cross-format standardization in DRM, a situation I blame on Apple, Microsoft, Real, the record industry, and any number of other players whose actions show they could care less about the consumers of music and video. It's just wrong to have to buy a song or TV show in one format for an iPod, another for my PC, another for my DVD player, and so on.

While I'm on the subject, the issue of device authorization sticks in my craw. If, God forbid, you should forget to deauthorize iTunes on your old PC, you have to move heaven and earth to get that permission back for another machine. There has to be a better way.

3. Never Being Able to Say Never
A polite pop-up request (immediately after installation) to register your new program, or a single notice about a new update, isn't a major turn-off. But when the request or notice appears and reappears ad nauseum and there's no way to get rid of it, I begin to see red. I'm talking here about the notifications that have a check box for "Remind Me Later," but don't give you the option to say, "No, and Don't Ever Ask Me Again."

The big antivirus vendors--Symantec and McAfee--are the most egregious offenders here. If they or any other software vendor wants to force registration or updates on its customers, they should just bite the bullet and do so. Otherwise, please, give us the option to opt out--permanently.

4. Registering for Spam
I understand that when I register software, I let myself in for at least some advertising in exchange for updates and tips. But I wish I could always immediately see the default privacy settings, so I could easily change those I don't like. Most companies make you click through to a privacy policy and then to the page where you can make these changes.

It's also annoying when the defaults aren't the "leave me alone" options. Let me ask to be signed up for newsletters, notifications of sales, offers from third parties and the like. I should never get anything by default.
5. Whatever Happened to Please and Thank You?
Equally annoying is the application that makes itself at home without so much as a by-your-leave. This can take several forms. My colleague Danny Allen, for example, finds FireFox's automatic updates very annoying. "Firefox, I love you, I really do," he wrote. "But if you force me to wait while you install yet another minor point release (that you downloaded without asking me), then I may just have to move to Flock."

Another variant is the application that launches itself or a helper application at startup, also without asking permission (think QuickTime or Acrobat Reader). Some appear in the system tray, so you can manually shut them down, but others don't even give you that courtesy. And some simply won't let you uninstall the startup program without uninstalling the entire application. I've yet to figure out how to keep Verisign's user-authentication software, which was preinstalled on my HP notebook, from running at startup.

6. Don't Get Too Attached to That Software
Sunsets at the beach can be beautiful, but when a sunset policy hits your personal finance and antivirus programs, it's not a pretty picture. Once your version of Microsoft Money is two years old or your version of Intuit's Quicken is three years old, they can no longer automatically download financial transactions. The best you can do, if your financial institution supports it, is to export your transaction data in a supported file format (usually .ofx) and then manually import it into Money or Quicken.

With antivirus apps, you usually can't use older versions with new virus signature files, period. This is obvious planned obsolescence.

Intuit and Microsoft insist that they don't have the resources to support automatic downloads to older editions of Quicken and Money while also developing new versions with features that their users want. That's absolute and total nonsense. The truth is that by withdrawing support for a key product feature, the companies in effect coerce customers to upgrade, whether or not they really want any new features.

Given the option, some people might prefer to pay a small fee for continued support of an older product. And I'm not just talking about skinflints--once you've got an old version of a product doing exactly what you want it to do, why take a chance on a new version that may have substantially different versions of the features you depend on? Would it really be so hard to continue packaging virus signatures in a format usable by older versions of Norton or McAfee?

The bottom line is that it's very annoying to have an application you like deliberately crippled to make you buy a new version. Companies should consider other ways to keep their bottom lines healthy.

7. Inconsistent Windows Apps
Windows provides software developers with lots of freedom to create programs that operate the way the developer wants. That can lead to great creativity. But I wish they'd settle on some basic standards for behavior so I'd know what to expect.

Example: Unlike most other apps, Adobe's InCopy continues to blink the cursor even if it isn't the foreground application. So if you've clicked over to iTunes to change tracks, been distracted, and then returned to your desk, you see the blinking InCopy cursor and think you can just start working in that application--until you hit the keys and iTunes begins playing other songs.

This kind of inconsistency is pervasive and confusing. Take the example of switching from one window to another. Excel, Word, and most other apps make you click once in their window to switch focus before you can do anything else. iTunes lets you access menus on the first click, and Firefox lets you do pretty much anything in one click. There's nothing wrong with any of those systems, but let's decide on one and stick to it.

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