OEMs are still breaking Windows: can Microsoft fix this with Windows 8?

Mark Russinovich works for Microsoft and has deep knowledge of Windows internals; he created the original Sysinternals tools which are invaluable for troubleshooting.

His account of troubleshooting a new PC purchased by a member of his family is both amusing and depressing, though I admire his honesty:

My mom recently purchased a new PC, so as a result, I spent a frustrating hour removing the piles of crapware the OEM had loaded onto it (now I would recommend getting a Microsoft Signature PC, which are crapware-free). I say frustrating because of the time it took and because even otherwise simple applications were implemented as monstrosities with complex and lengthy uninstall procedures. Even the OEM’s warranty and help files were full-blown installations. Making matters worse, several of the craplets failed to uninstall successfully, either throwing error messages or leaving behind stray fragments that forced me to hunt them down and execute precision strikes.

I admire his honesty. What he is describing, remember, is his company’s core product, following its mutilation by one of the companies Microsoft calls “partners”.

Russinovich adds:

As my cleaning was drawing to a close, I noticed that the antimalware the OEM had put on the PC had a 1-year license, after which she’d have to pay to continue service. With excellent free antimalware solutions on the market, there’s no reason for any consumer to pay for antimalware, so I promptly uninstalled it (which of course was a multistep process that took over 20 minutes and yielded several errors). I then headed to the Internet to download what I – not surprisingly given my affiliation – consider the best free antimalware solution, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE).

Right. I do the same. However, the MSE install failed, probably thanks to a broken transfer application used to migrate files and settings from an old PC, and it took him hours of work to identify the problem and complete the install.

What interests me here is not so much the specific problems, but Microsoft’s big problem: that buying a new Windows PC is so often a terrible user experience. Not always: business PCs tend to be cleaner, and some OEMs are better than others. Nevertheless, although I have had Microsoft folk tell me a number of times that its partners were getting the message, that to compete with Apple they need to deliver a better experience, the problem has not been cracked.

There is something about the ecosystem which ensures that users get a bad product. It goes like this I guess: customers are price-sensitive, and to get the price required OEM vendors have to take the money from malware companies and others desperate to drive users towards their products. Yet in doing so they perpetuate the situation where you you have to buy Apple, or be a computer professional, in order to get a clean install. That describes a broken ecosystem.

Microsoft’s Signature PCs are another option, but they are only available from Microsoft stores.

The next interesting question is whether Microsoft can fix this with Windows 8. It may want to follow the example of Windows Phone 7, which is carefully locked down so that OEMs and operators can add their own apps, but their ability to customise the operating system is limited, protecting the user experience. It is hard to see how Microsoft can achieve the same with the x86 version of Windows 8, since this remains an open platform, though it may be possible to insulate the Metro side from too much tinkering. Windows 8 on ARM, on the other hand, may well follow the Windows Phone pattern.

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10 comments to OEMs are still breaking Windows: can Microsoft fix this with Windows 8?

  • Gilberto

    Well, what I (unfortunately) do every time when I acquire any new pc is simple, FORMAT!, then proceed with a clean install, download only what I need from the provider, and bam! happy perfectly functional windows pc.
    I tried once to remove the crapware, but it is too expensive, therefore, clean install! saves me time.

  • tim

    Good solution, but not feasible for the non-professional person; apart from anything else, they have no clean Windows install media.

    Tim

  • Tom

    Which is why Microsoft’s anti-piracy lawsuit against Comet is so counterproductive. Here’s a store that’s *HELPING* Microsoft customers get the clean PCs that they deserve … and Microsoft rewards them by filing a lawsuit?

    Frankly, Microsoft ought to sell clean-install media itself, for a nominal media + postage fee. Simply have people type in the COA sticker to verify eligibility. What could be simpler?

    As for Windows 8, there’ve already been news articles hinting that OEMs are unhappy about how tightly Windows 8 Tablet is being locked down. Note: no such word on Windows 8 Desktop — which suggests to me that it will be destroyed as usual by the OEMs.

  • Tom

    Incidentally, I just discovered that you can now clean-install Windows 7 and activate the COA sticker directly over the Internet. Back in Vista days, the automatic activation would always fail, and you’d have to telephone to the activation hotline.

    I wonder if there’s been enough of a backlash against crapware-infested PCs that Microsoft had gotten tired of all the phone calls, and decided to remove the restriction against activating OEM licenses.

  • Bob F

    Yeah, crapware is a real problem with new PCs and Microsoft has been slow to recognize how damaging it is. As you say, the crapware issue makes Apple computers look that much better in comparison. Hopefully, Microsoft is beginning to figure out the importance of the user experience and will get the problem under control in Windows 8, at least on the Metro side.

    Meanwhile, the “PC Decrapifier” is a great, free utility for cleaning those nasty craplets out of your new PC quickly and easily.

  • Microsoft can only blame themselves for that situation, not OEMs.

    They’re the ones that actively pursued media-free distribution and OEM licenses, and that have been doing their best to restrict the OEM licenses, and saell normal licenses (aka clean installs) at a premium.

    And on the uninstall situations, they can only blame themselves too: they could have gone for simple, one-app one-folder-for-binary one-for-data no-nonsense “xcopy” installs, but they preferred to go for MSI (one mess of an installer if there ever was one conceived), WinSxS, .Net’s GAC, registry, ever-changing standard folders policies, etc. which are all complex-for-the-sake-of-it, very convoluted technologies, where the following the path of least resistance leads to getting it wrong.

    One of the key advantages of MacOS, iOS & Android is their approach to installing apps (and later uninstalling them), which is both simple, and very simple, and takes its root back into the 70s. You just don’t have that dreaded feeling when installing something on an iPhone that you can get when the MSI windows popups and tells you (usually for some bit of time) it is validating installation…when you’re installing for the first time!

  • Peter Ibbotson

    To be honest I was pleasantly surprised about the lack of crapware on a budget Advent Laptop I bought for my wife (she browses the web, opens the odd spreadsheet / word document and uses iTunes so she’s not a heavy user)

    It came with anti-virus (Norton from memory), a Mac like launcher and an MS office pre-install. Trivial to remove all three.

    Biggest disappointment was the trackpad which was trying to be a multi-touch device (can’t remember the OEM name) it’s shockingly bad.

  • tim

    Agreed, it varies a lot. Hard to know in advance though.

    Tim

  • Tom

    Eric: Mac OS X gives the *illusion* of simple uninstalls. If you drag an application folder to the Trashcan, all the junk gets left behind on your filesystem.

    It was the OEMs that pushed Microsoft to enable media-free distribution of the OS. Margins on PCs are so tight nowadays that putting CDs in the package would eat up a non-negligible portion of the profit.

    Microsoft has made enough mistakes of its own, without getting blamed for imagined faults.

  • Michael Bunny

    In Austria we simply only take Window OEM licenses when we buy computers. We simply bought Windows OEM licenses only, so MS ‘gave up’ selling anything else. The only thing one does need is the basic antivirus from MS and maybe a Spybot Search & Destroy. Such a computer on Win 7 uses 548 MB (but I am not sure if the graphic card’s 500 MB shared memory .. it is fast 7200 rpm disk. In the install and configuration took a few minutes but uninstalling of OEM Software can take some time …

    What do you get somewhere else … First usually home premium or ultimate which is by far a lot too much, a third-party virus scanner, a third party firewall … hard to uninstall, a basic Office that helps no one, Works no one needs. Maybe the Corel Express stuff, this can be helpful. The annoying things start with Ebay links in the browser … the lot more critical thing is – the virus scanner content subscription for the updated has to be renewed and people simply, say, I don’t pay and click ‘Never ask me again’ …