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Windows 8: Sinking under bloatware?

For years, Windows users have been dealing with crapware – pre-installed, mostly-useless software that burdens and bogs down almost every new Windows PC. It is not unusual for a new PC to have dozens of programs pre-installed, ranging from virus scanners to Skype to banal video games, all stealing valuable storage space, RAM, and CPU cycles.

Meanwhile, of course, on the other side of the blindingly white picket fence, Macs come with a bunch of first-party (and mostly first-rate) Apple applications – and that’s it. For Windows advocates, this has always been a particularly tough bone of contention: Even though Windows 7, in its base state, is faster and more stable than OS X, it’s hard to extol the virtues of a crud-laden £300 PC from Dell or Acer.

How did the Windows OEM ecosystem ever end up in such a sorry state? Sadly, it’s actually all our fault.

You see, OEMs are paid good money to install shovelware on your new Windows PC. We don’t know the exact amount of money that McAfee pays Dell, but it’s likely in the range of a few quid. Scale this up to a few dozen pre-installed apps, and OEMs probably net somewhere in the region of perhaps £50 or more for every PC sold.

Now, in the case of Apple, an extra £50 on top of a 30 per cent profit margin £1,250 Mac isn’t all that enticing. In the Windows OEM world, though, where you can buy a PC for a few hundred pounds and profit margins are sub-5 per cent, crapware is subsidising your new PC.

It’s sad but true: In the race to the bottom, Windows OEMs first slashed their prices, then reduced the quality of their products, and then – with nowhere else to run – the only recourse was bundling every new PC with a library of cruddy apps.

It’s a classic case of mass-market consumerism: Above all else, we demand cheap PCs – and in the rush to undercut each other, crapware was the only solution. It’s sad, but true – we caused the proliferation of crud-laden PCs. We caused the consumer perception that Windows PCs are slower, cheaper, and tackier than the Mac competition.

Meanwhile, Microsoft wails in the wings

Microsoft, of course, knows all too well about its OEMs’ infatuation with crapware subsidisation. In the last year, Microsoft has made a few moves to combat the bloatware filth. First off, it started selling Microsoft Signature PCs from the handful of meatspace Microsoft Stores over in the US – and then later, in a rather controversial move, it offered to restore your OEM PC to “Signature” status for $99 (£62).

In effect, Microsoft is charging $99 to pop a Windows 7 (or 8) disc into a PC and perform a clean reinstall. If you look at this objectively – in terms of a technician reinstalling your OS – then it seems like a fair price. If you look at the big picture, though, it’s impossible not to laugh at the irony of Microsoft selling Windows licenses to OEMs, and then collecting a hundred bucks to remove their junk.

The even bigger picture, though, is that Microsoft is trying to lead by example with its own Surface tablets, which – like Apple devices – are completely devoid of cruft. Microsoft only has a small number of real-world stores at the moment, in the States and a few in Canada, but the eventual goal is to open a lot of stores, sell a lot of Signature and Surface PCs, and eventually force OEMs away from the “Crap Side.”

Windows 8

Unfortunately, Microsoft’s efforts to purge the Windows ecosystem of bundled crapware were too little too late when it came to Windows 8. At the start of November, Byte took a look at a bunch of OEM Windows 8 PCs, and in some particularly grievous cases (the Acer Aspire 7600U – see the above image) the systems are loaded down with more than 50 pieces of OEM and third-party software. 50!

If Windows machines were still predominantly desktop PCs, Microsoft and its OEMs could probably just about get away with it – modern desktop CPUs are powerful enough to cope with this crud, and most consumers won’t notice the reduction in storage space. Windows 8 is primarily a mobile OS, however, and pre-installed crudware is the last thing that you want installed on a Windows 8 tablet.

It isn’t outside Microsoft’s power to mandate that OEMs shy away from crudware, but that would be an incredibly bold, and potentially suicidal, move by Microsoft – and as we know, Microsoft’s Windows division isn’t exactly in the business of making gutsy moves.

With the always-on, touch-lovin’, keyboard-and-mouse-hating Metro Start screen, Microsoft is taking a huge gamble on entering the mobile market – and yet if it isn’t very careful, crudware could obliterate any chance of consumers perceiving Windows 8 as a slick and efficient OS.