Everyone Wants To Be a Player

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Still the big players don’t get it. Still they drive people like me nuts, and confuse ordinary users, with their sly tactics that confound and bewilder.

Above, for example, Microsoft’s Windows Media Player provides a list of files that it will play by default. All are checked automatically, including DVD video, midi files, WAV files and MP3 files. Nowhere is there a button for deselecting all of them. Weirdly, at the top is a message that says

Window Media Player 9 Series will be the default player for the file types that are selected in the following list. You must be logged on as administrator or a member of the Administrators group to change these settings.

Microsoft’s way of confusing users who think this is something that they can’t control, and intimidating them into not trying. Nowhere does it say “You can uncheck these boxes if you like; of course you’ll have to do it one by one, which we’re hoping you won’t have time to do.” (I timed it; it took about 10 seconds. That’s ten seconds of my life I’m not going to get back.)

RealPlayer is notorious for this kind of thing. I installed it the other day. The Media Types window, steers the unsuspecting user to signing away all their rights with a big obvious option and one lesser option:

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If you are stupid enough to ignore that, you can try figuring out which files you want RealPlayer to deal with, which of course, has everything checked by default:

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There is, however, an “Deselect all” button. And alongside each format is a helpful note about what software that file type is currently assigned to. Their sneaky trick, however, is to hide the important one, the reason you presumably installed the player, so that you have to scroll down below the visible list to find the Real file types. There’s no button marked “Just let the Player handle the things it’s supposed to handle, and leave me alone, OK?”

Actually, this whole thing is a kind of battle, a bit like the default browser battle. Everybody seems to play the same game, with varying degrees of sneakiness/sleaziness. Back in the Preferences window of RealPlayer is a checkbox that lets RealPlayer fight back, in case you’ve decided against allowing it to play everything. Although in its defence, the first time it notices you’ve left the reservation, you get a warning, which says “RealPlayer is no longer the default player for some audio and video files:

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Still, the wording is sufficiently cheeky to confuse the more casual user: “Do you want to keep RealPlayer,” it asks, as the default player for these file types?”

I like the word “keep” instead of “revert” or “return”. Most users are conservative. They don’t want to change things. RealPlayer execs probably sat in an office all afternoon thinking about the wording to that little message. This message will keep popping up, by the way, each time you change one of these file types until you tell it to stop.

Window Media Player, meanwhile, is a bit weirder. Windows’ file system will acknowledge that control of the file type has passed hands, but WMP won’t. Instead, in the file types options window, the checkbox will be ticked but “dimmed”:

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The help file helpfully says:

If a selected check box is dimmed, Windows Media Player has only partial ownership of the file type. Multiple file extensions are assigned to the file type, but the Player only plays some of those extensions by default. To give the Player full ownership of a file type, double-click the dimmed check box.

I’ve read that second sentence a couple of times, and still don’t know what it means. But to me the implication is clear: It’s virtually impossible for Windows Media Player to surrender all rights to a file type unless you actually uncheck the right box in the options window. And you may notice that the only way into the options window is through a menu that can only be accessed on the default Windows Media Player skin by a little arrow in the left hand corner:

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The bottom line: I can understand that control of media is valuable real estate for these guys, but I really feel for the poor folk who are trying to just play music, or videos or whatever. There must be a better way of doing this.

Sneaky Software: AOL’s Bad

It seems that even the big players still don’t get it. StopBadware, a “neighborhood watch” for sneaky software, says that the latest (9.0) version of AOL software

installs additional software without telling the user, it forces the user to take certain actions, it adds various components to Internet Explorer and the taskbar without disclosure, it may automatically update without the user’s consent, and it fails to uninstall completely.

Pretty damning stuff. We know this kind of thing happens but this seems to be somewhat excessive. Most damning are the bundled programs installed without permission, or even informing the user: RealPlayer (surprise, surprise), QuickTime, AOL You’ve Got Pictures Screensaver, Pure Networks Port Magic, and Viewpoint Media Player. “During the installation process,” StopBadware says, “the user is never clearly notified that AOL will be installing these programs.”

StopBadware quotes AOL as saying that they are reviewing the report.

Companies have got to stop this kind of thing. This report is damning in that it’s clearly not just one oversight: The software has been designed to be as invasive as possible, to basically take over the user’s computer and steer them to all things AOL. That Apple and Real Networks allow themselves to be involved does not reflect on either well. And after some difficulty uninstalling it I’m beginning to have my suspicions about Network Magic (Pure Networks Port Magic is an AOL version of the software) too.

Stop It Before It Starts

A program I’ve found highly useful of late is Windows Startup Inspector. It does something Windows XP should do, but doesn’t: Allow you to decide what programs do and don’t start when Windows does. It sounds dumb until you realise that most programs these days — including a lot that should know better — automatically load themselves, or bits of themselves, into memory when you boot up. It can seriously slow down your computer, and there’s no straightforward way to fix the problem in Windows XP. It’s a bit like the next door neighbour cadging a lift to work everyday without asking.


Startup Inspector lists all these annoying programs, and will even try to tell you more about them than merely their name, via an online database of some 3,400 known programs. I have disabled about half of the programs that have loaded themselves uninvited and it definitely helps, even when you’ve got lots of memory to play with. They hog memory, but they also take time to load. Even sneaky little programs like RealNetworks’ Tkbell.exe (a silly little reminder program) will try to reload itself automatically into your start-up queue whenever you use the RealPlayer (my advice: don’t use it if you can possibly help it.)

Windows Startup Inspector is Freeware. If you like it you can make a donation to the author, through PayPal. Or you can buy his laptop, which he seems to be selling on eBay. Hard times for software authors?