For a few years now, I’ve been expecting to write an obituary for annoying software.
Or not an obit, exactly. I was hoping to dance on its grave. This is the software that worms into your computer without your knowledge. You can get it when you buy your PC, software companies pay PC makers to install the stuff on new machines, or when you download some ostensibly useful program from the Web. You might download Adobe’s Flash player, say, and only later discover that the installer also larded up your computer with a dubious “PC health check” program that tries to scare you into paying to “repair” your machine.
But ever since the summer of 2008, when Apple launched its App Store, the death of intrusive software has seemed imminent. The App Store promised to kill it by centralizing software distribution. Because it’s the only way to get apps on your phone, and because Apple prohibits it and reviews all the apps that are submitted to the store, you’ll never get unwanted programs when you install an app.
There are lots of problems with this model: The App Store gives Apple too much control over the software market, letting it stifle competition and enforce prudishness. But one of the reasons the App Store has proved so popular is that it lets people try new software without having to worry that it will hurt their machines. That’s one reason why Android, Windows, Kindle and the BlackBerry have all adopted similar centralized app stores. Many of these stores have more liberal review policies than Apple’s, but they all prohibit undesired software. It seemed likely, then, that this scourge would soon be gone. If we all got our apps from app stores, and if someone was checking those apps to make sure they weren’t bundled with unwanted software, it would soon die.
But that’s not happening. It has proved remarkably resilient, and now I fear it will stick around for years to come. That’s because device makers, cellular carriers, and some of the most prominent investors in Silicon Valley are keeping it alive. It’s also because Google and Microsoft, the only companies in a position to stop it, haven’t fought this software with the passion it deserves. And that gets to the main reason it lives on: There’s a lot of money in it. Indeed, the rise of app stores has perversely made bad software even more valuable than in the past. App stores are clogged with thousands of programs, so it’s harder than ever for software companies to get you to voluntarily download their stupid games, weather monitoring programs and unnecessary security programs. That’s why they’re willing to pay a lot to get their stuff on your device without your permission. And that’s why it may never, ever die.
Google and Microsoft could easily inhibit annoying software by altering Android and Windows licenses to prevent manufacturers and carriers from preinstalling the software. But I don’t expect them to do so. While it’s bad for users, and while it doesn’t help the images of Android and Windows in the long run, it’s good for Microsoft and Google in the short run. The money that device makers get from these software makers lowers the price of Windows and Android devices, which in turn boosts their market share. Plus, Microsoft has found a way to make money from junkware; if you take your computer to a Microsoft Store and pay $99, the company will remove all the junk for you. See? It pays! That’s why it will never die.
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Manjoo is Slate’s technology reporter and the author of “True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.” Follow him on Twitter at fmanjoo.