Sony Tastes a New Foot Flavour: Crapware

mothra-9.jpgIf nothing else, Sony is a master of blunders.

A couple of years ago they infected peoples’ computers with a semi-malicious virus distributed on music CDs.

And just last year the company stick-handled its exploding battery crisis like a Timbit.

Now the corporate Godzilla is faltering in its face-off with the software equivalent of Mothra: crapware.

Most Windows-based computers ship with a plethora of software you don’t need — crapware, also know as bloatware and trialware — that serves to do little more than make your brand new computer slow, unstable, and annoying.

Last week Sony offered to ship crapware-free Vaio computers — for fifty bucks. The blogosphere instantly exploded.

Crapware offers limited or no functionality whatsoever. It’s placed there, essentially, as advertising for a product or service.

Sony, by the admission of one of its own Vice Presidents, “is the poster child for negative experiences people had [with crapware].”

The company has gone so far as to design a software suite that leads new Vaio owners to an evil online lair of crapware even as it hawks crippled media content like games and music.

Sony once filled over 3 GB of every hard drive with a locked copy of Spider-Man 3. New computer owners were forced to pay $10 if they actually wanted to watch it.

It’s not just Sony that’s guilty of crapware distribution, though. Every big PC maker does it.

So what’s to stop people from just deleting this stuff?

By all accounts, removing crapware is no easy process.

Walt Mossberg, a preeminent technology user and writer for the Wall Street Journal describes the process as spending “hours as a digital maintenance man wading through annoying and confusing chores.”

Another tech writer said that his new HP notebook came “with so much crapware [I needed] several hours to clean this thing up.”

And PC World reports that, “it can take a savvy user hours to remove unwanted programs, and those who are less sophisticated may never be able to reclaim the wasted memory.”

And it’s that last point that most prescient: most of us will be stuck with crapware on our Windows PCs forever. And that represents a significant drain on your machine’s resources which seriously affects its performance.

It’s as though your new car came with a trunk full of cement blocks that couldn’t be removed and bald tires you couldn’t replace.

One owner of a new notebook reported that he was accused by Toshiba tech support of “breaking my computer by attempting to uninstall bloatware.”

Toshiba couldn’t fix his problem and ended up just shipping him a new hard drive full of bloatware.

But why do PC makers force us to suffer so?

Money, of course.

Last year Michael Dell explained that his company nets about $60 per machine from crapware. However, he also explained that this barely covers the cost of providing tech support for it.

As a result, Dell began offering some of their PCs almost free of crapware.

So last week, when Sony introduced their $50 “Fresh Start” program, it appeared that they were shifting the easy-money revenue stream onto consumers’ shoulders.

They didn’t want to deal with the headache of providing tech support for crapware, but they still wanted that cash.

And then the internet happened to them. Within days, the unending din from bloggers around the world forced Sony to recant their bloatware tax.

The company now permits us to order their highest-end line of notebooks sans-crap for free. They promise to expand that to their full line by year end.

However, whatever this one company says they might start doing someday, most of us have crapware-hobbled PCs right now.

Our machines run slower and crash more as a result.

But hope is not lost.

Microsoft offers a free tool calls Autoruns, which can be downloaded from their web site. Running this on your PC will help clear up the junk that automatically loads when you turn on your computer.

Another free piece of software, CCleaner, will remove the gunk that’s clogging up your hard drive and optimize your machine’s performance.

Both tools modify the state of your PC, so be sure your computer is backed up before you use them.

The most practical solution, of course, is to avoid crapware altogether.

And there’s really only one way to do that, other than building your own PC from scratch: buy a Mac.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 28, 2008.

All About n: Wi-Fi’s Newest Letter

wifi_logo.gif9 years ago I purchased my very first Apple Airport base station. It was a revolutionary product: it provided wire-free internet browsing.

I hung it in a prominent location in my office. Its unusual flying saucer shape was very eye-catching. Clients always asked about it.

And then as I demonstrated wireless web browsing on my PowerBook, they would look at me as though I were some kind of witch doctor. This provided me all the voodoo license I needed to raise my consulting rates on the spot without explanation.

Of course, Wi-Fi is everywhere these days. Virtually every device, from handheld video game systems to cars, is Wi-Fi-enabled.

But the technology that supported my Airport base station in 1999, called 802.11b, pales in comparison to a new Wi-Fi standard, 802.11n, that’s crept onto the market over the last year or so.

But what’s the difference? And, more importantly, should you think about upgrading to the latest and greatest even if you’ve already got a Wi-Fi network in place at home?

802.11b was one of the first wireless networking standards to emerge from an organization called the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.

“802.11” is a family of wireless networking technologies that’s more commonly referred to as Wi-Fi.

The letter that comes after 802.11 indicates a generation in the family.

Each Wi-Fi generation has primarily improved on its predecessor in three ways: speed, stability, and range.

For example, the theoretical top data rate you could get from my old b-grade Airport base station was 11 Mbit per second.

The current generation, 802.11n, can potentially transfer data at a rate as high as 300 Mbit per second. You’re more likely to get something like 74 Mbit per second in the real world, though.

That’s quite a difference, and it approaches the speeds that wired networks are capable of.

Another thing 802.11n has going for it is operating frequency.

It’s moved from the 2.4 GHz spectrum of its predecessors to the 5 GHz spectrum.

This means that it’s less susceptible to disruption from other electronics like cordless telephones, microwaves, and even fax machines.

(Quick sidebar: 802.11a, the orphan generation of the family, also used the 5 GHz spectrum. But way back in 1999 it was expensive to produce 5 GHz hardware components. So very few companies implementated this generation, despite the fact it was faster and more stable than 802.11b.)

One of the biggest bonuses in 802.11n is range.

Most people these days have b- and g-grade wireless routers. These devices have an indoor range of up to 35 metres — if you’re lucky. In fact, they’re pretty good at covering some of the house, but most people experience blind spots or have trouble when they need to connect wirelessly through a lot of walls.

802.11n effectively doubles the distance for indoor connectivity and improves the signal durability through walls and floors.
Clearly, 802.11n beats its older siblings as a quality Wi-Fi standard. It’s faster, more stable, and has great range.

In practical terms, though, that doesn’t really mean much.

After all, most people just use Wi-Fi as a wireless means of connecting to the internet in their homes or at a café.

And 802.11n is unlikely to make your experience with the internet any faster.

That’s because the bottleneck in your internet access is not your Wi-Fi network. It’s actually the connection itself to your internet provider.

Most high speed ADSL and cable internet connections offer a theoretical data access rate of anywhere from 2 to 6 Mbits per second. That’s less, even, than ye olde 802.11b.

So jumping on the 802.11n bandwagon won’t kick your BitTorrent sessions into high gear.

Of course, the exceptions to that statement are obvious. If you have your old 802.11b/g router buried in the basement and your Mac is way up on the third floor, then the improved signal range and more robust operating frequency of 802.11n may improve your access to the internet.

Another matter to look at when considering an upgrade is compatibility. Unless you have a device that’s 802.11n-capable, you won’t gain any benefit from an 802.11n router. You might have to upgrade some of the guts of your computer, or just buy a whole new unit.

For example, I have three computers, but only one contains a Wi-Fi card that can “talk” 802.11n. My 802.11n router communicates with the other two in the slower and less robust 802.11g tongue.

Really, 802.11n is all about improving your home network. If you have a number of n-grade computers and you transfer lots of big, fat files like movies around between them, then an upgrade to 802.11n will be bliss for you.

Otherwise, meh.

Gone are the days when you could fleece your clients just because you were the first kid on the block with wireless internet. Heck, every kid on my block’s got it now.

But that’s okay, because even after almost a decade, surfing the web without strings retains its je ne sais quoi.

Unfortunately, the new n-grade standard doesn’t improve too much on that.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 19, 2008. 

Why Speedy Gonzalez is the Enemy of Hollywood

SpeedyAndSylvester.pngI recently hooked up with Speedy Gonzales and tossed my principles to the wind.

There’s that famous Looney Tunes episode where Speedy repeatedly sprints over the border and past Sylvester the cat to score cheese from the Ajax Cheese Factory for his compadres.  

This 1955 cartoon is the perfect analogy for a battle that currently rages between the popular media industry and consumers.

Obviously, Sylvester is the massive media industry that produce and distributes such fare as movies, TV shows, and music.

We consumers are the mice of the world. We want Sylvester’s cheese. And we want it delivered right to our hard drive with minimal impediments.

And Speedy? He’s a friend of my sister. Or, as one hombre mouse quips in the cartoon, “Speedy is a friend of evreebodiees seeester!”

And that might be true, but for the purposes of this analogy, Speedy is the BitTorrent network of peer-to-peer file sharing.

In other words, BitTorrent is the easiest and fastest way to, well, access stuff like TV shows and movies over the internet.

I used to stick my chin in the air and declare with noblesse oblige that I would never breach the unspoken ethical covenant between a consumer of artistic media and its creator.

But, come on. Sylvester is taking his sweet time to provide me even a nibble of gorgonzola. And, man, I’m really hungry for cheese.

So Speedy and I, we went on a date the other night. I won’t go into details but, well, I lost my morality to that fast mouse.

It all started when a friend revealed the contents of his external hard drive to me. It was a veritable treasure trove of movies and TV shows. Full seasons of Lost. Films that are still in theatres, like Atonement, I am Legend, and No Country for Old Men.

It had all come from BitTorrent.

My sense of morality was shattered. I knew this was wrong. This was evil. But, dammit, I was hungry for cheese.

So my friend referred me to Speedy Gonzales.

That night, I downloaded a BitTorrent client for my Mac.

I had been planning on going to the theatre to see Juno that night.

Instead, at lunch time, I started to download it through BitTorrent. Before I’d finished an afternoon of work, I had the movie file on my hard drive.

So, I didn’t burn gas to get to the theatre. I didn’t lay out any cash for uncomfortable seats and stale, greasy popcorn.

I settled on my couch and enjoyed the movie in the comfort of my own home.

The scary thing was, even as Sylvester works so hard to keep the cheese from the mice, BitTorrent is ridiculously effective at delivering it.

Step one: download a client. Transmission seems to be the best for the Mac and Linux. µTorrent seems to be the choice for the Windows platform.

Step two: go to a BitTorrent tracker web site. I’ve come to like Pirate Bay, though my friend prefers Mininova. Then search for the media you want. You’ll probably find at least one instance of it.

But you won’t download the media from the web site. Instead, you’ll download a small “tracker” file.

Step three: open the tracker file in your BitTorrent client. Now the movie, TV show, or whatever you’re after will start downloading.

The tracker file, in essence, is a direct connection to the dozens of other people who are simultaneously downloading and sharing that same particular media file you want.

Here’s how that works.

BitTorrent is a type of “peer-to-peer” file sharing system.

P2P, as it’s more commonly called, means that content is shared directly between yourself and other people through the internet.

Back in the day, with traditional P2P, you would strike up a connection with one other person on the internet and get the file you wanted directly from them.

The difference with BitTorrent is that, at any given moment, you’re actually downloading content from a lot of other peoples’ hard drives, bit by bit.

It’s a sneaky way around issues like copyright. You’re never really downloading or sharing one particular movie or TV show. Just pieces of it.

Step four: answer the door when the RCMP arrive to arrest your thievin’ ass.

Just kidding, sort of. Peer-to-peer file sharing is not exactly legit, so you can be assured you’re treading on soggy legal ground when you use BitTorrent.

So I like to assuage my guilty conscience with the notion that I’m involved with a form of peaceful protest.

Speedy is my Mahatma Ghandi, not my Bugsy Malone.

I firmly believe in fair compensation for media, and I’d be more than happy to have paid $5 for my Juno download. Honestly. Hollywood, send me the bill.

But Sylvester has made it virtually impossible to legitimately access the digital media content you want, especially if you live outside of the US.

So, really, we need Speedy to ensure that our consumer rights are upheld. And, if all goes well, effect change.

At the end of the cartoon, Sylvester decides that it’s impossible to protect the cheese.

He piles it all up just outside the factory, in clear view of the mice. He packs dynamite around it. Then he detonates it, fully expecting the cheese to be destroyed forever.

But, instead, a funny thing happens.

It rains cheese.

The mice celebrate as Sylvester engages in a rudimentary form of self-flagellation.

Speedy turns to the camera, wagging his thumb at Sylvester, and says, “I like this pussy-cat fellow. He’s silly.”

And, you know, all of a sudden I like this media industry for the same reason.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 14, 2008. 

How Do You Spell Web 2.0 Relief? P-L-A-X-O (.com, of course)

Plaxo_logo_black_300.jpgOh, man, I have such a hangover.

I drank a little too much Kool-Aid at the Web 2.0 party over the past few years and my head is killing me.

I puked my identity all over the internet at sites like Clipmarks, Voono, Zoomclouds, Hotpads, and Yorz. I blindly bantered at Twitter, WordPress, and Xing. I danced the night away with other sites that are now Sedo fodder and shall remain nameless.

And now I have a problem: how to keep track of the various accounts I have scattered across this wide, wide web like so many illegitimate children.

Fortunately, Plaxo.com has the ultimate Web 2.0 afterparty: Pulse.

But first, some background on Web 2.0 for the uninitiated.

More than an industry catch phrase, Web 2.0 was an evolutionary period the web just went through.

Sort of like the hippie movement, it was all about overdosing on Ajax, interaction, and meaningless personal videos — the web equivalent of drugs, sex, and rock’n roll.

And, just as the 60s produced a lot of really bad music, Web 2.0 bore down on the internet with more crap than anyone shall ever be able to measure.

Fortunately, just as memorable acts like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan rose above the acid-stoked din of a few decades back, Web 2.0 managed to spit out some sites that may actually prove interesting (useful, even!) over the long term.

Google’s YouTube, for example, is working hard to reinvent how we distribute and consume video.

And Facebook wants us to redefine our social practices.

Yelp is helping us share our collective opinions on local businesses.

Meanwhile, CBS’ last.fm seeks to socialize the musical interests of everyone.

Ironically, however, despite Web 2.0’s emphasis on user interaction, none of these sites interact with one another very well. (Or maybe not so ironic: less than 1% of visitors to Web 2.0 sites ever did more than browse.)

Each site is effectively an island.

So, even if you and your friends engage with just the few sites I mention above, it’s a lot of work keeping track of each other’s videos, photos, notes, and über-trivial brain farts.

That’s where Plaxo’s Pulse comes in. It builds bridges between all these disparate sites.

You should try it out.

The process is simple.

Head to Plaxo.com and set up an account (yes — just one more!). Then enter information about all your past Web 2.0 flings into their Pulse section.

Plaxo will immediately start to harvest your activities from Facebook, YouTube, last.fm, iLike, Bebo, Picasa, and Flickr, just to name a few.

So, if you post a video to YouTube, Pulse tracks and displays it. If you add a note to Facebook, it gets synced into Pulse. And just after you post vacation pics on Flickr, they will be displayed within Pulse.

The result is a fascinating audit trail of personal online activity from each web site you engage with.

Now, get your friends to go to Plaxo and set up Pulse. Then “connect” with them in Plaxo. (Or to thwart the system, just enter their various web accounts into your own Pulse account, no password needed — sneaky!)

Your Pulse page on Plaxo becomes a intermingling stream of the simultaneous online activities of you and your friends.

In a way, Pulse is like a living, breathing collection of personal bookmarks.

Unfortunately, you still have to traverse the web to post to Facebook, Picasa, and the rest of them (though you can directly update your Twitter status from Pulse).

But Plaxo has cleverly set up sharing and interaction features within Pulse.

So once it becomes the centre of your online universe, you may just give up on the others. Maybe.

For survivors of the Web 2.0 era such as myself, Pulse feels, well, cushy and safe, sort of like a gated community.

It makes you feel like a Yuppy trying to repress an acid flashback by settling into the sofa and watching bootleg footage of ancient Zeppelin concerts on your plasma TV.

Pulse lets us live the Web 2.0 life as mature, respectable netizens, in the spirit of an old Talking Heads song: there’s a party in my mind, and I hope it never stops.

But to be honest with you, that’s one party I’m glad is over.

Ouch.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 5, 2008.