Lenovo hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons this week: the world's biggest PC manufacturer has been accused of installing malware on its PCs. The software, called Superfish, appears to be intercepting internet traffic to inject third-party advertising – and in doing so, it makes affected laptops vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, even if the software has been uninstalled.
That isn't just dangerous to users – it's dangerous to Lenovo's reputation too. Lenovo has now acted and suspended installations of Superfish on new PCs, but it's been shipping affected hardware for months.
What is bloatware, and why should you care?
Bloatware used to mean software that was poorly made or designed, but it has also come to mean unnecessary software that's been pre-installed by the hardware manufacturer. A device driver or a manufacturer-branded utility for controlling a graphics card isn't usually bloatware, but a price checking toolbar or a "visual search engine" usually is.
The Lenovo case is unusual because bloatware is not normally malicious. The most common kind of bloatware is a trial or a "lite" version of a paid-for product, which is installed in the hope that consumers will then upgrade. However, some bloatware is adware (software that adds advertising to your web browsing or everyday computing) or spyware (software that monitors what you do and sends details to a third-party, such as a marketer). Even if the unwanted software is entirely benign it takes up space and can make a significant difference to your PC's performance.
Don't just take our word for it: take Microsoft's. To promote its $99 (around £64, AU$127) bloat-free PC service, Signature, it said that the six Signature PCs it tested entered sleep 23.1% faster, started up 39.6% faster, and resumed 51.3% faster than otherwise identical "cluttered, trialware-filled, slower-than-should-be" laptops. Microsoft has since removed those claims from the web, presumably because it made its bloatware-bundling OEM customers unhappy.
Why bloatware is bad for business
This week we discovered that Sony is considering hiving off its smartphone business. Bloatware is partly to blame: Sony made excellent hardware, stuffed it with bloatware and watched rival firms snap up most of the market. One of those rivals is Apple, whose computers are also famously free of bloatware, and the other is Samsung, whose imminent Galaxy S6 smartphones will apparently ship without the relatively innocuous bloatware that has nevertheless been implicated in the less than stellar sales of the Galaxy S5.
Given that consumers hate it, and it makes otherwise speedy PCs sluggish, bloatware is clearly a bad idea. So why on Earth do manufacturers persist in installing bloatware?
The answer, of course, is money.
It's all about the cash
Critics of bloatware often point to Apple's bloatware-free and sticker-free PCs, but it's easy to keep your PCs pure when you have a gross margin of 39.9%. That's inflated somewhat by the massive margins on smartphones and tablets, but analysts suggest the margin on Macs is still somewhere around 18.9%.
Windows PCs sell for much less money and with much lower margins: according to The Guardian, the weighted per-PC profit of the five biggest PC manufacturers (HP, Dell, Lenovo, Acer and Asus) fell from $15.71 (around £10.20, AU$20.20) in 2010 to $14.87 (around £9.60, AU$19.10) in 2013, and the same report notes that Acer may have made a loss on almost every PC it sold from late 2011 to late 2013, with its best ever profit margin raking in a massive $1.13 (around £0.75, AU$1.45) per PC. In the same period, Apple's per-PC profit was between $230 and $240 (around £155, AU$310).
The problem is particularly pronounced with consumer products. Firms such as Dell can operate with low margins because they have other products and services to sell to businesses, usually at much higher margins. That doesn't happen in the consumer market, which is almost entirely price driven. There's every chance the person you're selling to today bought from a different firm last time and will buy from a different firm next time.
In those circumstances, a software firm offering to double your profit margin if you pre-install their program sounds like the kind of offer you can't refuse, and many manufacturers don't. They call it adding value, but that's just marketing nonsense: with very few exceptions the only value bloatware really adds is to the manufacturer's profit and loss account. If apps such as Superfish were so valuable, we'd seek them out and install them ourselves.
Beat the bloatware
Bloatware is likely to be around for the foreseeable future, but that doesn't mean you have to put up with it. If you don't buy solely on price and you look for business-oriented machines you're likely to avoid the worst excesses (and of course many business users will roll out images to their computers containing only the applications they want). Furthermore, if time is money then you might consider shelling out the extra dough for the Signature edition of your chosen device (if there's one available) or buying a Surface, because Microsoft doesn't put bloatware on its own machines.
Failing that, tools such as the PC Decrapifier do exactly what the name suggests, automating something that's relatively simple but fairly time consuming, or you could reinstall Windows from scratch (a full installation, not a reset or refresh: OEMs can customise the images Windows uses for those in Windows 8).
In the long-term we'd like to see Microsoft do with Windows what Google has done with Android – that is, crack down on what OEMs can do to change the default experience. It could do so via the OEM license agreement and financial incentives: for example, Windows 8.1 licenses are currently discounted for OEMs who agree to set Bing as the default search engine, and free if the devices are also below a certain size and price. The same approach could work perfectly well with Microsoft offering discounts dependent on a no-bloatware clause, or by adding such a clause to the existing criteria.
Windows of opportunity
That may happen with Windows 10, which is widely expected to adopt a freemium business model. That could mean ultra-cheap Windows machines running free Windows, possibly with all the unpleasantness we're familiar with, and slightly more expensive paid-Windows machines that are blissfully free of bloatware and which run as their engineers, not their accountants, intended.
Satya Nadella says Microsoft wants users to love Windows 10. Banishing the bloatware would certainly make that a lot more likely.