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Sony's Crapware Incident: The Right Idea Gone Terribly Wrong

Opinion - Given by the speed Sony reacted to the outrage over the company’s fee for removing crapware from one of its notebooks, I am pretty sure that the marketing folks are still trying to figure out what hit them and where this enormous wave of complaints came from. But now that we have chastised the company over its strange idea that consumers should actually pay for the privilege to get a clean PC, we wonder: Was Sony’s idea really so bad? Or did the company just screw up presenting it?

I am sure that everyone who purchased a PC loaded with useless third-party applications and software trials in the past took a very close look at Friday’s outrage over Sony’s offer to ship an essentially "clean" PC for a fee. The story isn’t so black and white as it may appear and there is an important thought behind this crapware removal - a thought that was the right one, but the way how it was offered was, well, silly.

It reminded me of an especially painful purchase of an HP Pavilion tx1000 notebook, which currently sells for around $1000 through retail stores such as Circuit City. Besides the fact that I believe that this notebook comes with the wrong processor (AMD Turion X2), the wrong operating system (Vista Premium, which, in combination with the CPU, takes two minutes to load), a screen that looks like a touchscreen, but isn’t a touchscreen (I bought one of the first units that did not come without a touchscreen) and a fancy surface coating that is impossible to keep clean there is the fact that it comes with so much crapware you need several hours to clean this thing up.

In fact, what was a $1200 notebook back then, included HP’s own Wi-Fi assistant software, which was unable to create Wi-Fi connections under Vista. I was told by HP’s support staff that the Wi-Fi assistant was incompatible with Vista and if I wanted to use the Wi-Fi feature, I would need to remove this application. I did and Wi-Fi worked just fine. Talk about bloatware.

As things happen, I talked to an analyst a few days later and told him that this notebook never should have come to market - not with this processor, not with this OS and certainly not with tons of software you throw away anyway. This analyst talked to AMD and HP, and - apparently in anticipation that an article was in the works - I got calls from AMD and HP. The call with HP was particularly interesting and while I can’t go into every detail, we spent quite some time on the crapware issue. I was told that these additional applications help finance a device and keep margins alive. I had to agree: Realistically, what can you expect from a $500 notebook anyway? Someone has to pay for the hardware and OS. You should expect some inconveniences in exchange for a low price. But my notebook was not a $500 device. Crapware on a $1200 notebook? I didn’t get that.

The tx1000 in fact prompted me to try out a MacBook. I grew up using PCs and always complained that Macs were simply overpriced computers. So I ordered a MacBook and gave it to my wife, who had never set up a PC on her own. She unpacked the MacBook, turned it on and was up and running with Wi-Fi in less than 10 minutes. The same task took me 2 hours on the tx1000 and this just covers booting this thing up and the quality time with HP’s support. It does not include the time I needed to delete the crapware and configuring Windows. Putting these two notebooks next to each other makes you wonder why Apple was able to come up with a surface that does not show fingerprints, a magnetic power plug and a configuration that boots in less than 30 seconds - and HP/Microsoft did not. As a side note, after running the MacBook for a few weeks, I noticed that journalists from most other news websites I am aware of have switched to using MacBooks and many of those writers who are still using PCs seem to be embarrassed enough to cover the logos of their Windows PC manufacturers with Apple stickers. There appears to be something terribly wrong with Windows notebooks today.

This story has been sitting on my desk for about a year or so and I never came around to writing it. But when a reader pointed me to the Sony crapware incident last Friday, the memories of the tx1000 came back up and made me think: Is the option of crapware removal really so bad? I would have liked to have this option with the tx1000.

The real problem with Sony’s offer was that it was offered with a PC that would cost you at least $1900 and as much as $2250. If you spend that much on a notebook, there shouldn’t be crapware installed in the first place. So that $150 option was silly to begin with and an easy target. It looks to me like someone at Sony had a great idea and someone up in the chain was able to screw it up. But thanks to the outrage, the fee has been removed and it apparently is free now. Well, sorta: You have to select Vista Business for an extra $100 to get the "Fresh Start". What about dropping it completely, Sony?

But what about all those sub-$1000 notebooks? Doesn’t a fee-based removal fee of $50 or $100 make sense here?

I have received a few dozen comments from readers who say they anyway format the hard drive of a new PC before they use it or they remove all those applications they do not need by hand. I wonder: Even if you know how to completely wipe those applications from your hard drive, how long does this process take? In the end, many PCs are tools and you don’t want to waste a lot of time setting them up. You want to be able to use them right away. We don’t live in the times of Windows 95 anymore when you just knew you would have to take a day off to make this new PC work. The PC has become a commodity like a new car: Turn the key and drive.

Strangely, Apple has figured it all out. There is no crapware. And for a price that isn’t far away from PC rivals.

I am all for a crapware removal fee. Just don’t tell me that I have to pay it with $1500+ PCs.