A History of Nags
It's hard to pin down exactly when nag screens began to appear, but they have evolved from their humble origins to become a ubiquitous part of our offline and online lives. Join me for a look at some of the high points in the history of nagware--before it drives us all over the edge.
Norton AntiVirus (1990)
Antivirus software like the venerable Norton AntiVirus (now Symantec Norton AntiVirus) may be the go-to example of nagware. Free antivirus software constantly badgers you to upgrade to the paid full version. But even the paid versions don't stop the harassment, since they (understandably) find it necessary to bug you about keeping them up to date.
Background image is courtesy Facebook user Jan Tik
Adobe Reader (1993)
One of Adobe's oldest products, Adobe Reader, ranks as one of its most persistently irritating pieces of software. The default way to open all of your PDF files sometimes pops up out of nowhere to pester you on behalf of totally different programs, as in the case of this tie-in with a "free" antivirus scan.
Real Networks/Real Audio Player (1995)
In the Dark Ages before YouTube, you couldn't open an audio or video file on the Web without your PC firing up a copy of Real Audio Player. And if you managed to get Real Audio running without ever eliciting an irritating nag screen, then you're a better geek than I am. Real Audio was also notorious for designing its nag screens to default to paid upgrades and for using other sly tactics to extract money from frugal users.
Adobe Flash Player (1997)
Adobe Flash is surely the gold standard for applications that constantly badger users about upgrades. It seems as though I can't make it through a week without Adobe urging me to accept some Flash upgrades and then restarting my computer to install them. Maybe that's why Steve Jobs hates it so much?
Auto Update Nags (Windows XP, 2001)
Plenty of OSs in history have had automatic update features, and plenty of them still do, but most are polite enough to accommodate your schedule. Not Windows XP. Its notorious auto-update reminders offered only two options: Restart Now, or endure another round of harassment in 10 minutes. To make matters worse, the nag screen would yank you out of full-screen programs such as games and movies in order to pester you.
Apple QuickTime (2002)
For nearly a decade, Apple has been annoying users with upgrade pitches urging them to go Pro with its QuickTime multimedia player. I don't know about you, but after clicking 'Later' a thousand times or so, I'm still not going Pro with QuickTime--and at this point it would feel like a betrayal to do so.
Windows Genuine Advantage (2004)
Perhaps the most deceptively named software in history, Windows Genuine Advantage did nothing but continually suggest that your copy of Windows might be stolen. (Maybe it was a genuine advantage for the makers of ibuprofen.) Of course, many people who intentionally used stolen copies of Windows were clever enough not to install Genuine Advantage in the first place, which left Microsoft haranguing multitudes of innocent but ingenuous computer users along with an unknown number of software pirates.
Fake Antivirus Pop-Ups (First Lawsuits, 2005)
For proof of the ubiquity of antivirus nag screens, look no further than fake antivirus pop-ups. The thinking behind these slimy nuisances seems to be that computer users are so conditioned to seeing real antivirus screens pop up that they'll just click on a fake one without thinking twice. By doing so, of course, the hapless user triggers the installation of any number of malicious programs that masquerade as computer security software.
Free online services are starting to supplant shareware in our lives--and they're updating the concept of shareware nags, too. Online services like music-streaming service Spotify have devised Web versions of the nag screens of yesteryear to serve as thoroughly modern gadflies.
Mobile Nags (2007)
Even our phones are getting in on the act. Apps for iOS and Android can (and often do) press users to upgrade to the maker's paid version. Most gallingly, even if you've paid good money for an app, the software may blast you with nag screens importuning you to give it great reviews.
Social Networking Nags (2008)
These days, nags are moving out of our shareware and into our online lives. Social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter constantly goad us to find new friends or to update our security settings or to RSVP to events. Cumulatively they are just as exhausting as their offline equivalents.
Browser Nags (2011)
The Mozilla Foundation never tires of advising users to update and upgrade their Firefox browser. Ignoring those pleas can be unwise, since the upgrades typically bring security improvements and better performance. If you haven't upgraded to the latest version of Firefox (currently version 4), the next time you update your browser Firefox will spawn a new tab and invite you to accept the free upgrade. I recommend that you do it. Not all nags are bad, I guess.