Friday, January 8, 2010

Moral Responsibilities

If you work in the software industry long enough, sooner or later you are going to be asked to do something that comes into conflict with your conscience.  Whether it be to ship with defects in the hopes that no key users will find them before you can get it fixed so you can ship on time, or whether it be to include some arcane EULA agreement into the software that no one will ever read, but gives the software or the company to do anything to your PC, or to gather and distribute any personal information the company wants to sell.  Sooner or later, you will review the strength of your convictions.

When I started out in the industry fifteen years ago, I was an idealist (aren’t we all when we are young).  I can remember tracking my hours religiously to ensure that I got paid for every minute I worked past 40 (this was in Canada and overtime was required… that was nice).  Now, I track hours so I can bill clients, but I have adapted to the term ‘salaried employee’, and I just do the work.  It took a few years to get the ‘overtime’ idea out of my head, but I’m paid well for what I do and I want the small company I work for to be a success.  I also know that I must spend my own time to improve my skill set.  That  was something I didn’t see as my cost of working, just a few short years ago.  My moral values changed over time. 

A few weeks ago, I upgraded all my personal PCs to Windows 7.  One thing I hadn’t done was to install the HP driver software so I could download pictures from my HP C6180 All in One printer.  I could print to it, but I couldn’t see the SIMM card reader to get the photos.  We had a bunch of pictures on the camera I wanted to post for family to see.  I went out to HP’s website and started to download the installer for the drivers.

I stopped the download when I saw it was 340 MB.

Yes, 340 MB.  For drivers.

Now I’m not an expert on driver software, but I recognize bloatware when I see it.  I stopped the download, and attempted to find driver software just to get the ph0tos.  You know, something that will allow me to see the SIMM as a USB device.  HP’s own site (in small letters off to the side), said that if you wanted just the drivers (no network), to search for the Basic package.   I did that.  The only package that came up was one for XP and Windows 2000 Server.  Hmmm.

I got impatient.  I didn’t plan to have my whole evening sucked up with just trying to get pictures off the camera,  That’s supposed to be the easy part.  So I decided to download the 340 MB package and install it.  I knew that the previous version of the software had some really annoying apps that I didn’t want, so I figured at some point during the install I would have a chance to opt out of those. I started clicking through the install.  I got to  the page that asked you to accept the EULA.  I clicked to accept (like anyone reads those), and then clicked next.  I then noticed that the install was about to start without giving me an option to opt out of the bloatware.  Hmmm.

I went back a screen, and re-read it.  On the screen were a series of links that look like they are part of the text, but are really optional installer screens that let you go an opt out of some of the options.  Okay, my fault, I missed it.  But reading on, I see a part that says failure to install all of the options will probably cause the installer to fail.  What?  Scare tactics or honest truth?  Bad software?  I was about to commend them for their honesty, until I went into the screens, and started to see all the crap (pure bloatware) and all the really dangerous stuff (outright spyware) they were about to try to install.  Holy Mother of God.  I’ve never seen such a blatant attempt to take my personal information.

Let me stop here for a second, and go back 29 hours.  The previous day I got a call from my wife that she got a call from our credit card company that they had noticed some unusual activity on our credit cards, and sure enough, someone had stolen our number and was buying stuff at BigLots! and Target in California.  I live on the West Coast, but nowhere near California.  So we cancelled our card, had the charges removed, and everything was taken care of in a couple of hours.  I was a little upset, and briefly talked about the death penalty for credit card theft (a damn fine idea if you ask me), but after a few hours, everything was okay.

Fast forward to last night, sitting in front of my PC, looking at all of this crap.  I was spitting mad.  Mad at HP for creating such a mess.  Mad at HP for knowingly taking advantage of the fact that no one ever reads the EULA.  Mad at HP for violating the trust that we are supposed to have for large purveyors of  hardware and software.  They are supposed to be out there fighting against this kind of thing.  Mad at HP for making software developers do this, because I have to believe that no self-respecting developer would ever do this except against their will in an effort to keep their job.  Mad at the industry that slowly whittles away our moral values to the point that this is acceptable behavior.  Mad at the fact that my elderly parents would install this without questioning it, and expose themselves to all kinds of corporate invasion.

I went through and eliminated the stuff I didn’t want, and installed what I thought was the barebones driver.  But I missed a checkbox, and it still installed something called HP Web Printer Helper.  The next time I fired up a browser, half the screen was taken up by an HP add on that kept asking for special permissions to send information HP to help improve my experience.  What the fuck!?!  Screw that.  Search though the add on list and disabled it.

But then I realized that disabling it wasn’t enough.  My other logins for the rest of the family may still have it installed and active.   So I went back into Control Panel and removed anything from HP that was questionable.  I was still pissed.

I popped on to HP’s site, looked through their contact page, and fired off a long note to the HP CEO Mark something or other.  There was a 3500 word limit.  I may have been close.  I doubt if I’ll hear back, and I doubt even more if HP will change their evil ways.  I was ready to call for an all out boycott, but I realized that I liked the HP EX 490 Home Server I recently purchased too much not to recommend that one to other people.

Instead, I’ll simply document my experience here, and hope that my tale takes root, and those roots break the concrete of corporate greed and malfeasance.

So be forewarned, those of you who blindly approve all EULAs from supposedly trustworthy companies.  They know it, and they’re starting to take advantage of that fact.  Scary.

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