They install themselves, marking their territory with icons. They flash distracting, trivial alerts on the screen in front of you. They demand that you install the latest update, and they won’t take no for an answer. When you give in and install the update, they make you restart. They nag you to upgrade to a paid version. They spam you. They beg you to sign up. They’re a pain in the browser.
We’ve all experienced annoying apps. In fact, some of them come preinstalled on new PCs. I did some informal polling of PC users and came up with a list of the seven worst offenders, in no particular order.
This program earns my nomination for “most annoying.”
In one version of AOL’s popular AIM instant messaging app, a video starts playing if you make the mistake of mousing over the upper part of the AIM panel. I can’t watch video and work at the same time, thank you.
I’ve never seen a needier, more shamelessly attention-hungry Web app than AIM.The developers seem to have thought of just about every way to hound you into clicking to an AOL property or to one of its advertisers.
The app automatically opens the AIM News page in a browser at start-up. This page continues the game by presenting you with juicy celeb gossip news and pictures–guilty-pleasure stuff designed to keep you on the page a few seconds longer. “Please stay…look at this! Lindsay Lohan throwing up!”
The current version of the app looks for any excuse to get in your face. It notifies you at the top right of your screen that one of your friends has logged on, logged off, eaten a sandwich, or taken out the trash.
Because I have AIM on my work PC, my home PC (a Mac), and my mobile phone, the app constantly bugs me about the fact that I’m logged in from more than one location. So what if I am? Is that a big security risk? No. I’m not discussing military secrets; most people never discuss sensitive stuff on IM, period. The alert about multiple log-ins is really just another excuse to pop a message box in front of my face and make that stupid AIM sound.
I’ve used a number of different versions of AIM over the years, since my work requires it–and try as I may, I always end up upgrading to a new version, which invariably introduces a whole new generation of annoyances.
Most people, however, can choose from among dozens of third-party IM apps to use. These apps readily communicate with AIM and many other clients, and they spare you AIM’s needy and annoying habits.
I like the look and feel of iTunes, but the app is notoriously big and bloated, and it can take forever to start up. The iTunes Store seems big and clunky, too–and it has a similar problem with glacial loading times.
But Apple’s walled-garden approach to media and devices is what really gives me a pain. Apple has a long history of tying its iTunes music and video to Apple devices, making it difficult for people to buy music and video from Apple and play it on non-Apple devices. On the music side, Apple has eased its monopolistic approach in recent years, but it still doesn’t exactly go out of its way to play nice with non-Apple devices.
On the video side, Apple continues to live in the DRM dark ages. Just try to buy a TV show or movie on iTunes and play it on a home-theater system not made by Apple.
I’ve never seen an app that requires so many updates. It seems as though at least once a week I’m stuck looking at a “please update me” screen instead of listening to music or watching video. If you decline to accept the update, that screen will keep coming back as relentlessly as a zombie army.Oh and by the way, Apple commonly takes updating as an opportunity to sneak in installs or updates to other stuff–such as the Safari browser and the QuickTime media player–hoping that you’ll hit the Start button without opting out of those other items. Pretty tacky, Apple.
“I’ve got to give it to iTunes,” says Peter VanRysdam, CMO of 352 Media Group. “They are constantly releasing updates, and always trying to bundle other things in for me to download. I’m set with my version of QuickTime, thanks.”
Finally, when you do accept the update, you’ll have to sit there for a while as it downloads and installs, and you’ll have to restart your computer in order for the update to take effect.
For an app that I don’t use all that much, Adobe Reader sure demands a lot of attention and upkeep. It’s constantly pestering me to update, so that Adobe can add several more esoteric document-handling features to my version of the program–features I’ll never use.
The updates don’t always go smoothly, either. “The annoying little icon pops up on my system tray on a regular basis,” offers Nir Gryn of New York City. “I have tried to download the update, and it has failed on several occasions. Now I mostly ignore it, but would love to have it install successfully and let me work.” And people can ignore that little icon bouncing at the bottom of their desktop (that’s what it does on my Mac) for only so long.
Reader can be a bad guest even when it isn’t whining for an update. “It seems they are always putting launch icons in the tray even when I tell them not to,” writes Anne Hellmich of Muskego, Wisconsin, on the PCWorld Facebook page.
Sure you can use an alternative PDF viewer, but it may not be able to open files that were created using the latest version of Adobe Acrobat.
In the past, RealPlayer was extremely pushy about selling you stuff like a for-pay version of the player. I remember searching for the free version of the player at RealNetworks’ Website and for the longest time not being able to find a link to it. I finally found the download button on another page that was a click deep in the site. Meanwhile, offers for a Rhapsody music subscription or a “SuperPass” were jumping out at me from all over the page. RealPlayer wants badly to be the go-to media player on your PC, and it isn’t shy about asking you for that privilege.
For people who still use RealPlayer, getting a new version seems to have gotten easier. I just upgraded my free RealPlayer, and I found the link to the free app (it’s now called RealPlayer SP) front and center on the home page. In addition, I managed to install the app without getting bombarded with offers for other for-pay RealNetworks services. So kudos to the good people at Real.com. Still, I’ll have to live with the new RealPlayer SP for a while before I’ll be ready to give it the “Not Annoying” seal of approval. And of course, there are alternatives.
I have McAfee antivirus software on my computer at work, and every other day I look down at the open programs icons and see that the program has once again burst unwanted from the background. It usually wants me to run some scheduled hard-drive scan (scheduled by whom?) and even gives me the added anxiety of a second-by-second countdown until the scan runs automatically. If that’s not what’s on its mind, the program is nagging me to register or install another update, complete with a ‘remind me later’ button but no ‘No, not ever’ button. When I try to imagine human beings communicating in that way, boiler-room telemarketers and used-car salesmen up against an end-of-the-month quota come to mind.
Adobe Flash Plug-In
The Adobe Flash app is perhaps the most versatile and artistic Web development tool ever. So naturally Web developers love using it. Problem is, if you don’t have the right Flash plug-in for your browser, instead of the developer’s lovely Flash work, you’ll see a big blank space on the page. Flash is so widespread that you’re almost required to have the latest updates of the plug-in.
The Flash plug-in story repeats with the Java plug-in, which seems to require a new update about twice a week. When you’re moving at Web speed, the sudden roadblock can be a jolt. Stopping what you’re doing (and possibly losing your train of thought in the process) to go to some site just to update some stupid plug-in is, well, frustrating. “It annoys me so much,” writes Kimbo Fonseca Raz on the Facebook page. “It wastes my time updating them so that I can run the Web sites!”
The ASK Toolbar
“The ASK toolbar that installs itself over and over again on Firefox and can’t be stopped from coming back apparently,” says PCWorld editor Anne McDonald. “Evil!”
Many PC users say they’ve found this out the hard way. The Ask toolbar is bundled with a number of free software packages, such as those from Nero. The toolbar is integrated into the installer software and becomes part of your browser once you install the free software on your PC. The invading app may also change your browser’s default home page to Ask.com, and changes your default search engine to Ask.
Some users report that It’s very hard for the operating system to completely get rid of the Ask toolbar. In fact, someone created a special tool to perform that specific task.
McDonald is right: The Ask toolbar is evil, but apparently perfectly legal.
UPDATE: A spokeswoman from Ask.com’s parent company, IAC, claims that users are given a chance to opt out of the toolbar install. “During the installation process, the user will see a window asking if they want to install the Ask toolbar,” says a Nero spokeswoman in an email to PCWorld. “If the user elects not to install it, no toolbar will be installed on the user’s machine,” she says.
To test this I installed the free Nero BurnLite10 software. A screen in the set-up wizard lets you uncheck the boxes for “make Ask my default browser search provider” and “set my homepage to Ask.com” but it does not give you an opportunity to opt out of installing the Ask toolbar. After you’ve unchecked the two boxes, you think you have opted out of the install, but you really haven’t. After I rebooted the computer, the Ask toolbar appeared at the top of my Firefox browser window. I ran though the normal “uninstall program” routine in Windows 7, and fortunately the toolbar went away and did not immediately come back.
This toolbar goes beyond annoying into the realm of downright scary. “My worst is the MyWebSearch toolbar,” says reader Richard Parsons. “That thing destroys computers! I spent hours trying to get rid of it, but a little bit of it always comes back after a restart.” The horror.
If you discover this scourge on your hard drive, quickly douse your PC in gasoline and set it aflame. Then bury the charred remains in a lead-lined casket far beneath the surface of the earth.
UPDATE: The IAC spokeswoman claims that the MyWebSearch toolbar (owned by IAC company Mindspark) can also easily be removed using the normal uninstall routine in Windows. I was too afraid of contamination to test this.
As noted above, Apple constantly tries to get users to update or upgrade the QuickTime media player client, in sneaky ways if necessary.
On my work PC, QuickTime has somehow managed to become the default image viewer. So whenever time I click an image, QuickTime launches and then demands that I explain just when I plan to upgrade to “Pro.” Grrrrrrrrr.
And there’s more. “The last time I installed QuickTime on my Win7 machine, it would automatically re-add itself to the Start-Up Programs list every time I ran the program,” says PCWorld editorial assistant Alex Wawro.
Desperate Social Networking Services
Several of our readers have complained about would-be social networking sites like Plaxo and Classmates.com. In a desperate attempt to get you to their site, these services play on a basic human need by promising you that someone from your past (or your future) is trying to contact you at their site.
Of course, if you take the bait and click the link in the e-mail message, you’ll usually find out that the person searching for you is somebody you don’t know and don’t want to reconnect with, or is some attractive person of the opposite sex who simply doesn’t exist.
You may have some of your own “most annoying apps.” We’d like to know about them. So please fire away in the comments below, and let us know the specific things the app does that drive you nuts.
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