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Dell Laptop

I just bought a Dell laptop. I generally buy from vendors I know, and St. Thomas has been buying Dell systems for the past several years. I might have bought an Apple, but their lowest base price was $1,000. I knew I could do a little better. In any case, I wanted to run both Windows and Linux. Running OS-X would have been a plus (I'm addicted to Aperture) but not worth the extra dollars.

The hardware seems solid - an XPS 1330 - and it's comfortably compact. It has thumbprint authentication that seems tolerably robust. The major size limiters, the RAM and hard drive, are easy to replace. So is the 802.11g network card. It came with "Windows Home Premium." I'm astonished at the amount of Dell-branded software you have to trim back. And I'm appalled that the default search engine, "Live.com," directs you away from OpenOffice.org when you go looking for it.

My computer didn't come with plain old "Internet Explorer." Oh, no. I have "Internet Explorer provided by Dell." Golly.

As far as I can tell, this version of IE is like any other, except that it grips its Dell and Microsoft roots with annoying zeal. When I redirected the home page away from the "dell.msn.com" site to my personal home page, it assumed I was kidding. Three times.

Biased searching: where did OpenOffice.org go?

Another oddity: IE uses Microsoft's "Live.com" site as the default search engine, and it pointedly ignores the Open Office home site. There were sponsored links to scary-looking sites that offered free copies of Open Office, spiced with adware, no doubt. There were links to the Wikipedia entries for Open Office. There were a few links to non-product oriented pages from OpenOffice.org. There were even more links to "download-open-office-here.com" sort of sites. But the first page of search results had nothing directing you to the authoritative Open Office download site.

That's just creepy.

There's something seriously biased in the way that site returns its answers. It's especially unnerving that the search results steer you away from the safe, authoritative download site and toward potentially risky sites.

Scrub, Rinse, Repeat.

The laptop also has a "Dock" that mimics the OS-X dock (it's a glorified collection of application links) but most of its "applications" are demo versions or glorified ads for services. There are pop-up balloons from the "Notifications area" reminding me to activate various subscription services.

While it's somewhat annoying to have to 'clean up' the computer, it's at least doable. Dell provides "cancel," and "disable," and "uninstall" options for its various nag-apps. They don't quite descend to the level of ad-ware, but it treads the line at times.

Back when I was a new professor, a student handed in an assignment written in Word Perfect. I was astonished - I didn't think it still ran anywhere. Feeling nostalgic for the early days of home computing, I found the company web site (yes, there is one) and downloaded a demo copy. MISTAKE.

After several months the installer program started running every week or so to remind me to upgrade. I immediately uninstalled every bit of the program I could find. But it took a determined search to hunt down the exact location of the 'hook' that kept the installer running.

My wife bought a Sony Vaio, which contained about as much Sony-branded pseudo-software as the Dell. Instead of a dock, the Vaio has a shadow task bar. My wife is comfortable with all that, so it remains.

Policy Issues

This illustrates some policy problems (or ethical lapses) in our software industry:
  • If a user changes something, like a default home page, the software should just do it and not coyly keep redirecting the user (now a victim) to some commercial-oriented site.
  • If a user searches for something specific, the search engine should not direct them away from the most obvious destination. Live.com's behavior makes no sense. Even worse, it poses a risk for its users.
  • If a user adds some behavior to a computer by installing software, the user should be able to remove all that behavior, too. Not all vendors are so careful (i.e. the company that implemented WordPerfect's installer software).
  • While a company is not obliged to make it easy for owners to customize their products (and in particular, strip away adware and gratuitously logo-emblazoned software) it's a sensible thing to do. I originally planned to blow away the Vista Home software and recycle one of my existing XP or Vista Pro licenses. I probably won't do that, since Dell has made it easy to customize the machine without such drastic measures. And the remaining Dell software is stuff I'm happy to keep, despite the gratuitous logos.
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