A "Dumb End User" Experiment

August 28, 2009 by Noah
Whilst using Windows operating systems and installing the software I tend to use, I've noticed that a good portion of Windows software comes bundled with crapware. During the installation of things such as AOL Instant Messenger, if you don't watch out, you'll also install the AIM Toolbar, set your Internet Explorer homepage to AIM's site, and set your default search engine to AIM's.

I, along with pretty much every other savvy computer user, never do the "Recommended" installation of software and always go with the "Custom Installation" route, so that I can opt out of installing unnecessary toolbars and other spyware/adware that comes with free Windows software. But does the Average Joe Windows user know that? Definitely not; the Average Joe just clicks through the install dialogs until the program he wants is installed, not knowing that he also just sold his soul to the devil by installing all manner of malicious spyware on his system.

So, I conducted an experiment.

I installed Windows XP on a virtual machine, and installed only a small selection of software that the average user would likely use, and went with all the "Recommended" installation options for every program installed. Altogether, I only installed 9 programs, and most of those were something everybody can say they've installed: instant messengers.

The Experiment

I used Sun VirtualBox as the virtual machine platform and installed Windows XP, Service Pack 2, on it. The specs of the virtual machine are as follows:

Memory: 256 MB
HDD Space: 10 GB

I installed a fresh copy of Windows XP, installed the VirtualBox guest additions, and used this as the baseline for a "vanilla" Windows XP installation -- a fresh, clean, pure instance of Windows with nothing really installed on it.

Vanilla Instance
[click for larger screenshot]

In our fresh vanilla Windows XP install, we see the default desktop, the start menu, the Task Manager with few enough tasks in it that we don't even need a scrollbar, and a default Internet Explorer 6 window with MSN as its homepage.

Then, I started installing some software.

Installing Software

I started with AOL Instant Messenger This installed AIM like I wanted, put an icon on my desktop, and also the AIM Toolbar for IE, and it also set my homepage and search engine to AIM.

Then I installed Yahoo! Messenger - this installed Yahoo Messenger, put an icon on my desktop, installed the Yahoo! Toolbar, and set my homepage and search engine to Yahoo.

Then, Windows Live Messenger 2009 (Build 14.0.8089.726) - this one didn't install a desktop icon, but it set my homepage in IE back to and changed my search engine back to Bing.

These are the three most common instant messengers that most people use. So, I went and installed other essential software:

Sun Java Runtime Environment, JRE 6 version 15. Java also took the liberty of installing the Bing Toolbar in my Internet Explorer.

Then I downloaded WinZip 12.1 Free Edition. Windows XP comes with built-in support for zip files, but Average Joe is bound to come across archives of other types and will be told to get WinZip. WinZip installed for me the Google Toolbar in Internet Explorer.

Then, the Adobe Flash Player - this is, so far, the only piece of software that installs what it says and nothing more. It's also the only thing I've installed in my experiment that installed only what I wanted it to.

Finally, I got a couple extra instant messengers installed: Skype 4.1 and ICQ 6.5 - Skype installed the Google Chrome web browser and ICQ installed the ICQ Toolbar and set my homepage and search engine to ICQ.

At this point, I have only installed 8 programs; 8 programs that Average Joe End User is likely to install. Using the default options on all the installers, my system is now fscked up already. But why stop there? Average Joe also needs an antivirus suite, with all this scare going around about viruses.

So, Average Joe installs AVG Free because Average Joe is a cheapass who can't afford Norton or McAfee. AVG may be well-intentioned, but that didn't stop it from installing the AVG Toolbar "Powered by Yahoo!" into my Internet Explorer as well as changing my search engine to AVG Search.

So, what's the damage? 9 programs, and this is what my system looks like:

After 9 Commonly Used Programs
[click for larger screenshot]

My Task Manager list has grown exponentially; I have to resize it vertically as tall as it will go, and even then there's still a scrollbar. And do you see the IE window in all that mess? It's completely being murdered under the weight of the 7 different toolbars taking up HALF of the vertical screen real estate.

This is only 9 programs being installed. For a quick list, here they are again:

  1. AOL Instant Messenger
  2. Yahoo! Messenger
  3. Windows Live Messenger
  4. Sun Java
  5. WinZip
  6. Skype
  7. Adobe Flash
  8. ICQ
  9. AVG Free
And this is the damage. Let's have a better look at that Internet Explorer window:

Internet Explorer Toolbar Hell!
[click for larger screenshot]

This, THIS is why Windows sucks. All Windows software installs all this crapware along with it, and all this crapware competes with each other (just look how many times my search engine had been changed).

This is the list of toolbars in IE, from top to bottom, which take up 50% of my 1024x768 vertical resolution:

  1. (IE Menu Bar)
  2. (IE Default Toolbar)
  3. (IE Address Bar & Links)
  4. AIM Toolbar
  5. Yahoo Toolbar
  6. Tabbed Browsing Toolbar
  7. Google Toolbar
  8. Bing Toolbar
  9. ICQ Toolbar
  10. AVG Toolbar
Perhaps more saddening is this: you may have noticed in the final screenshot that I'd installed LavaSoft AdAware - I was intending to scan my system with it and see how much spyware and adware it detected. Know what it found?

19 cookies in Internet Explorer. Cookies!!!

The only thing AdAware found were cookies left by ad banners. No adware? No spyware? Are you kidding me!?

So, how do the startup programs look? Well, I'll tell you that rebooting this virtual machine is miserable. With all these programs starting up when the desktop loads, nothing productive can be done for a full 10 minutes. Here's the breakdown:

Startup Items

There are three categories of startup items: current user items in the registry, system-wide items in the registry, and items in the user's Start Menu. At the beginning, the only startup item was VBoxTray, which is part of the VirtualBox Guest Additions, and it was in the system-wide registry list.

After this, the startup items were:

  • Current User Registry Items
    • AOL Instant Messenger
    • Windows Live Messenger
    • Yahoo Messenger
    • ICQ
    • Skype
    • Google Toolbar Notifier
  • System-wide Registry Items
    • AVG Tray
    • Microsoft Default Manager
    • Sun Java Update Scheduler
    • VBoxTray (VirtualBox Guest Additions)
  • Start Menu Items
    • WinZip Tray
This is absolutely ridiculous.

It should be noted here that free, open source software, almost never comes with crap like this. If you stick to fine programs like Firefox and Pidgin you can install them without worrying about what other crap they'll bring along with them.

I hate Windows.



There are 9 comments on this page. Add yours.

Avatar image
Annihilannic posted on October 14, 2009 @ 01:36 UTC

Brilliant experiment... what a laugh!

Avatar image
John posted on May 13, 2010 @ 08:01 UTC

Hahah, yep, well conducted experiment. Often thought of doing the same thing myself!

Avatar image
ds posted on May 22, 2011 @ 06:27 UTC

If you have NO Idea of how to use windows don't use it!!

Avatar image
Forrest posted on March 5, 2012 @ 12:49 UTC

If you have no idea how to use a computer you are probably a windows user.

Avatar image
Daniel posted on September 15, 2012 @ 09:54 UTC

Interesting experiment, I didn't know it was still this bad, I thought browser toolbars were a fad of the late '90s and early '00s.

You can hardly blame Windows for what third-party applications do wrong. Microsoft has no way, and should have no way, of influencing that. Except for Windows Live Essentials, which is kind of a recommended installation; I'll give you that one.

On the other hand, if Linux had the kind of spread and user base that Windows has, you can be sure that a lot of very similar stuff would start happening there really soon as well.

Avatar image
patrick posted on January 12, 2013 @ 23:48 UTC

You can switch off the "services" in the msconfig and in Systems settings -> services And you can unselect the toolbars while installing the programs (e.g. Java)

Avatar image
Ant posted on February 27, 2013 @ 00:50 UTC

This is true. I long ago learned not to use 'express' options or just click next, next, next. When it comes to windows anyway.

Friends usually bring me their computers to fix when they screw them up and are 'dead slow'. Their browsers usually look like that screenie of yours.

I completely agree with your point about open source. Being seen and contributed to by so many users of that same software gives some safety and security that you just cant get 'in house'.

It's true that M$ should not have control of third party developers but, maybe if m$ offered clean alternatives then people would not need this third party crap. Then again, who would they sell a new windows license to every other year? If the average users computer wasn't so full of crap, it wouldn't run so slow and they wouldn't think they needed an upgrade.

Nearly every Linux/GNU distro i have come across has some sort of repository for clean and pretty much guaranteed to work apps with no crapware whatsoever.

I know what my server (Debian Squeeze) is doing right now. I know what it's listening to and what its talking to. I know what it's writing to disk, what its reading from disk.

The desktop im at now (win 7 ult x64) well it listens to whatever it wants, talks to whatever it wants, grinds the hell out of the disk all day and wont even let me talk to the printer port.

Now im on a Linux v Windows rant so it must be time to move on.

Avatar image
Daniel posted on February 27, 2013 @ 01:22 UTC

Guest, I really don't think that Microsoft is supposed to offer its own alternatives for any imaginable thing its users might want. As it is they're being criticised for "exploiting their dominating market position" if they as much as include a web browser and media player, as any other consumer OS does and should.

In fact, 2 out of the 5 messengers installed are Microsoft's, and out of the others, Microsoft actually does have its own alternatives: Java -> .NET, Flash -> Silverlight, AVG Free -> Security Essentials, WinZip -> Explorer-integrated ZIP-handling. All of them are not bad, but in many cases, offering a recommended alterantive does not automatically make the other choices not needed anymore (i.e. frameworks, messengers).

Since Windows 8, there is an integrated software repository, the Windows App Store, similar to the app store Apple introduced for Mac OS X some time ago. Since I don't use Windows 8 I can't say how comprehensive or easy-to-use it is. However this is just an additional service and not at all a must for a consumer desktop OS. It's offered for a certain demographics. There have been clean Windows software repositories similar to the one coming with Linux distros, run by third-parties. It is important to note that when you talk about Linux distributions, you're actually mainly talking about exactly this part: the package management and the software repository maintenance. This is what makes Ubuntu Ubuntu, Debian Debian, or Red Hat Red Hat. It's not the kernel that's different. You could say that these software repositories simply are delivered as full-fledged OS because the OS kernel is redistributable.

You know exactly what your Linux box is doing because you took care in choosing what software it's allowed to run. You did this, I assume, by choosing a trusted distro and sticking to software from its repository. This is no different than taking care what software you install on a Windows or Mac box. Granted both these OS have been eons behind in terms of offering clean one-stop-solutions for those who want them. The blame for this cannot be entirely put on the OS manufacturers themselves, but they seem to both have made some exploration in this direction.

Avatar image
RavingNoah posted on July 12, 2013 @ 10:40 UTC

Okay, so this post is again pretty good. But I have to say, I enjoyed it a lot. I don't know how many times I've broken down and said "fine...I'll take a look at your computer" and found this sort of situation.

Love the humor in the site. Love the availability of vintage info. Hope you keep running it.


Add a Comment

Used for your Gravatar and optional thread subscription. Privacy policy.
You may format your message using GitHub Flavored Markdown syntax.