Whose Computer Is It Anyway?

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So when somebody comes to read your gas meter, do you give them a front door key and tell them to pop in any time they like? Or when you hand over your credit card at the supermarket checkout, do you let them know it's OK to take money out whenever they want? No? Then why do we put up with software that thinks being invited into your computer once is equivalent to an offer to run anytime it feels in the mood?

I moaned only last week about how some programs insist on scattering shortcuts all over the desktop, even when they are only doing an update to fix some security hole. OK, so maybe I was a bit unfair picking on Adobe Reader, but in fact - as far as taking liberties with my computer - it deserves it. Did you know that it installs two programs that run every time you start your computer? One that checks for updates and one that acts as a speed-increasing pre-loader.

I suppose both are useful if you spend most of your day using Adobe Reader. I don't, however. And surely if every program you installed insisted in running some "speed enhancing loader" like this it would defeat the whole object because every program would end up running more slowly. OK, so security update check programs are a requirement these days, and hopefully terminate after doing their check, but they still hit the start-up time. Perhaps, where appropriate, they could execute the update check when the program runs instead (like Mozilla does)?

The first thing I do when asked to "look at" somebody's computer that's running slowly or taking ages to start is to consider stopping some of the three dozen or so programs that decide they need to auto-start. I suspect this is a factor in many cases where users complain that their computer is "getting slower all the time" - although some PC manufacturers are equally to blame for filling the machine with a bucketful of semi-useless demo-ware.

Of course, some vital applications, such as security and virus protection software, do need to run at start-up. Though I'm not sure Microsoft Communicator or Messenger quite qualify for the "vital" category, but at least they have menu options where you can turn off "Start when Windows starts". And some other less-than-vital applications are sensible enough to install their shortcut in the Startup section of the Start menu so you can easily find (and delete) them.

So, having moaned at Adobe, who else has the temerity to imagine that they own my computer? How about the utility for backing up a mobile phone? I installed it and used it once to back up the initial configuration of my wife's gleaming new HTC Desire phone, and ever since I've had an ugly picture of a phone blinking at me from the notification area. Just so that, in case I decide sometime next year to plug the phone in again, it can spring magically to life. Maybe it would be useful if I synchronized music and photos every day, but surely an option to not have it run all the time wouldn't be that hard to do?

And, even worse, how about the TomTom satnav utility? I don't have a TomTom satnav, but I did agree to try and upgrade/fix one for a friend. The only way you can do it is to install the HOME utility from TomTom's website. Yes it installs so that it auto-starts, and then sits grinning at you from the notification area forever afterwards. So I now have two programs that I don't want or use, for devices that I don't have, running on my computer. I know memory and processing power is cheap these days, but I don't see why I should be wasting it like this.

Of course, Microsoft is well aware of this issue. One of the useful tools in Vista was Windows Defender, which let you easily see (and stop) programs that auto-run. However, if you install anti-virus software, including Microsoft's own Security Essentials, Defender is disabled. So thank goodness for Sysinternals Autoruns (this latest version is better than ever). Using it I discovered that the HTC utility actually installs four executable files in various places, including Task Scheduler, and the TomTom utility installs two. But removing them with Autoruns is easy, without having to dive into the Registry.

Of course, there's still the usual warning about fiddling with system settings. Changing Registry settings can cause your children to die from the plague, your house to fall down, your own Mother to disown you, and you may even prevent your computer from running correctly. So don't remove anything if you are not sure what it does.

Maybe the reason manufacturers insist on auto-running programs is because they think users are too stupid to realize they need to run them themselves when required. I would have doubted that until recently, but according to recent research led by a professor at Leeds University on behalf of the British National Formulary (which advises on medicines) expecting people to be able to turn their computer on at all is now in question.

The research team have discovered that complicated instructions, such as those typically found on medicines, can "cause confusion" and "should be simplified". The examples they gave of instructions that are now "too difficult for patients to understand" are "May cause drowsiness" and "Avoid alcohol". Gadzooks! Perhaps we need to simplify our IT terminology to match? Instead of "computer" we should maybe use "box with screen and letters on it", and instead of "USB cable" we should use "bendy wire thing with funny square bit on the end".

It all reminded me of that wonderful air traffic control oriented after-dinner speech by Dave Gunson (still available from Amazon) where he explained that airliners have to follow narrow flight corridors to maximize safety and position, and that it requires highly skilled flying to maintain the correct course and route. But then spoilt it by admitting that they actually show them in colors on the map, so you just need to "go down the blue one, then the red one..."

And that pilots wear white kid leather gloves with a big black letter "L" on the back of one and an "R" on the other...

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Whose Computer Is It Anyway?