Whose PC Is It Anyway?

Who Owns the PC Sitting in Your House?
Charles Olsen

Software is licensed, not sold. You’ll find words to this effect in the EULA (End User License Agreement) of just about any software you install on your PC.

You don’t own the software -- the publisher has merely agreed to allow you to install and run the software.
But who owns the hardware? If you order a PC from a web site or buy it at a store, and the charge is on your credit card, and you set it up in your home -- who owns that PC? Do you think it belongs to you? That seems like a reasonable assumption.
But some of the software companies may think differently. They won’t claim that they own the PC, of course. But they’ll treat the hardware as if they own it, and assume they can do what they want with it, with or without your approval.
Windows Update (WU) is a good example. Windows XP and Vista have the ability to connect to Microsoft servers and check for updates to Windows. When updates are available, WU can download and install them for you.
WU has options which allow you to control how updates are handled:

  • Install updates automatically
  • Download updates but let me choose whether to install them
  • Check for updates but let me choose whether to download and install them
  • Never check for updates

In September, Microsoft pushed out an update which installed even on PCs where users have turned off auto-updates. Even if you had configured Windows not to install updates, Microsoft would ignore your explicit choice and install updates anyway.
So who owns the PC? Microsoft seems to think it’s their PC, as they feel free to do what they want. Even if it is exactly what you do not want.
In an interesting bit of double talk, Microsoft’s explanation for this includes the comment, “Philosophically, Microsoft believes that users should remain in control of their computer experience.” (See the link below to the article “How Windows Update Keeps Itself Up-to-Date.”)
It doesn’t end there. In October, Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) forced Windows Desktop Services (WDS) 3.01 out onto PCs, even though the administrators at those companies had configured their systems to only install updates for existing programs -- and WDS had not been installed on any PCs. Once WDS installed it started indexing the PCs, slowing everything to a crawl.
And it’s not just Microsoft. I recently ran into another example myself when I bought a laptop computer.
At first I had planned to immediately wipe the hard drive and install Linux. After giving it some thought, I decided that since I would have Vista anyway, why not play with it? I wouldn’t put anything important on that partition, but I could test it and see how it worked.
Shortly after I turned it on and began working through the initial screens, I was presented a screen from McAfee software which gave me a choice to configure McAfee now or later. I didn’t want McAfee at all, but that wasn’t a choice. No matter, I figured I’d just uninstall it later. I’d read that Vista includes a lot of trialware and crapware, so I already knew I’d need to be cleaning up by uninstalling several programs. I clicked the “Later” button on this screen.
After I finished with the setup screens, I plugged in a cable to connect to the Internet. A few minutes later I noticed an animated icon in the system tray. I hovered the mouse pointer over the icon, and a pop-up informed me that the McAfee install was 70% complete.
I had not asked it to install McAfee, and it did not inform me that it was going to do so. It simply took the first opportunity -- a connection to the Internet -- to install software I had not asked for.
I don’t think this is part of standard Vista. It’s a Toshiba laptop, so I suspect this auto-install of McAfee is Toshiba’s doing. But it perpetuates the attitude in Windows software that the software publishers can install whatever they wish on the hardware, regardless of what the owner of that hardware wants.
I’ll admit that securing a new PC is very important, especially in Windows where viruses are free to install and reproduce themselves. But is it necessary to assume that the buyer is helpless? A lot of people buying these laptops probably understand how to secure them.
Granted, a lot of people don’t understand computer security. Maybe when you go through the initial configuration screens the first time you power up, it should present a screen to choose one of the following:
I understand computer security and accept responsibility for protecting my PC
I don’t know nothing about no computers; help me!

Then if the user has asked for help, call the routines that will install the security software.
My experience in Linux is quite different. In the Linux distributions I’ve used (PCLinuxOS, Ubuntu, Kubuntu and Freespire), there is a program called Synaptic which handles updates for all the software I have installed -- not just the OS.
But Synaptic never installs anything without my knowledge or consent. It doesn’t do anything until I click the Reload button -- then it will check for updates to Linux and to all my applications.
Then I click the Mark All Upgrades button. Synaptic will mark all upgrades to my current software to be downloaded and installed. I can examine the list if I want to see what’s being upgraded, and uncheck any I don’t want to upgrade. When I click the Apply button, the marked upgrades will be downloaded and installed.
You can see that there is a very different attitude in Linux software than there is in Windows software.
Whose PC is it anyway? Not yours -- not if you’re running Windows.
“Microsoft updates Windows without users’ consent”
“Windows Update’s Sneaky Updates”
“More gnashing of teeth after Microsoft update brings PCs to a standstill”
“How Windows Update Keeps Itself Up-to-Date”
“Microsoft’s OneCare silently changes Automatic Updates”

Charles Olsen is a writer, trainer and MIS professional. He can be reached at charles.olsen@pobox.com.

© 2007 by Charles M. Olsen n