PC makers walk fine line with 'crapware'

Computer makers tweak their approaches to avoid alienating customers while still trying to milk third-party software's cash cow. Images: Bogged down by bloatware?

For years, computer makers have managed to wring a few extra bucks of profit out of each PC sale by bundling all sorts of third-party software.

While adding software, setting default search engines and including toolbars can all put money in PC makers' pockets, the practice has also alienated some consumers who say all such "crapware" is clogging their hard drives and bogging down their systems.

For the moment, computer makers appear to be trying to walk a fine line, tweaking their approaches slightly but hoping not to have to slay a cash cow. Gateway, for example, offers only one program in each category, while Dell has added an option for some models that allow a user to configure a system with no trial software.

"We've seen the evolution," IDC analyst Richard Shim said. "The desktop became kind of a billboard for Internet service providers and software. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way."

At one time, PC makers thought they might be able to subsidize the whole cost of a PC through a combination of advertising and bounties from signing up ISP customers.

While those dreams have largely faded, companies have

Despite some outcry from consumers, there's still plenty of software being loaded on new machines. In part, that's because the PC industry needs the cash that such deals offer. Even if the companies get less than $1 per software program that they include on a PC, that can still add up to $10 or $20 in revenue.

"On a $400 PC, that's a big thing to get," said Stephen Baker, an analyst at The NPD Group.

In one sense, such bundled software represents free money for the PC industry. But at the same time, if it adds up to support headaches or causes customers to shy away, such software may not be worth adding.

Samir Bhavnani, an analyst at market researcher Current Analysis, said one option computer makers should consider is letting buyers order a software-free system but charge a premium to make up for the lost revenue. Bhavnani figures an extra $25 should be enough to cover the company's shortfall.

"It would be so simple for them to come out with an anticrapware PC," Bhavnani said. "People would love them for it. The question is, who has the (guts) to do it?"

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Apple, for its part, is playing off the growing outcry, highlighted in a recent column by Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal. In a new ad that debuted this week, the "PC guy" played by John Hodgman appears so bloated he can barely move.

"It's all this trial software," Hodgman says in the spot. "They pack my hard drive full of it, all these programs that don't do very much, unless you buy the whole thing...it really slows me down."

For the record, Macs do come with trial versions of Microsoft Office and Apple's iWork, though all other included applications are full versions of programs, including the company's iPhoto and iMovie, as well as third-party titles such as Comic Life.

Plus, Bhavnani said, Apple systems sell for far more than the average PC. "They make more money on the box than (Hewlett-Packard) or Dell does," he said. "That's why they are able to do that."

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