Who Owns Your Computer Anyway?

On the face of it, that is a rather silly question since within it lies the answer. Software is an important component of your computing experience – without it, you would not have a computer in the first place. However, having installed countless pieces of software of varying licenses, I have come to wonder what an End User License Agreement (EULA) really means.

It is a legal document as far as I can tell so the wisdom of putting it in front of a lay person to indicate (with a handy little button) acceptance or refusal seems rather illogical. I have done my best to try to go through some of these license but the legalese is just too convoluted to make any immediate sense. In a perfect would, you would retain a lawyer who would then break it down accordingly and explain to you what the license means and does not mean. The practicality of matching down to your lawyer every time you want to install a piece of software seems rather counter productive at the very least.

These licenses are an integral feature of proprietary software in that there is a real chance that you may be breaking the law if you don’t abide by the stipulations contained therein. As they like saying, I am not a lawyer but I would expect that for anything to hold in the court of law (more so the act of entering an agreement), the parties should understand what their respective obligations are. Without a lawyer present any chance of making sense of an EULA for a lay person is slim at best.

Once you have installed the software (after appropriately agreeing to the terms of the EULA), do you have ownership of the software that is currently installed on your computer? With a proprietary piece of code, you don’t own it of course hence the EULA is likely to explain that you are not suppose to revise engineer it or temper with it in any way. However, the EULA is likely also to stipulate the if you lose your precious data as a result of using the program in question, the producer of the software is not responsible. Such a situation makes you want to know why exactly you are paying for the software in the first place; for all intends and purposes it may not work as advertised and you have no legal recourse for any such harm that may have result from your use of the software.

And there are software manufacturers whose programs behave more like Trojan horses. You install a single piece of software from a company and the next time you are updating or perhaps even better the software you installed has an auto update feature which periodically checks for updates. Here is the problem, the update would also (in addition to suggesting the new release) install additional, unrelated software on to your machine. In a sense the original program acts like a gateway for the software manufacturer to invite even more software onto your hard disk.

This constant need to out do each other in order to gain the end user’s favor does essentially look remarkably like what a virus writer would do. I recently had to update the Windows Live suite produced by Microsoft and somewhere along the way, I checked a box that would allow me to change the home page and default search engine on my browser which in this case I assume (Since Windows Live is a Microsoft product) would apply to and only affect Internet Explorer. The default search engine for address bar search on my Firefox installation is Bing … no, I didn’t want Bing and there is no simple way of going about undoing settings change. In yet another trespass, I have a  .NET plug-in for Firefox installed while in the process of installing something completely unrelated.

With increase competition and jockeying for dominance, major industry players are hacking each other to bits. Google’s decision to integrate their Chrome browser into Internet Explorer using a plug-in seems like a good move on the surface and understandably so but then again there are far greater implication of control and ownership with such a move. As Mozilla points out, it confuses the boundaries between where Internet Explorer is and where things happen because of Chrome’s extension. It is easy to get excited at the thought of Google putting its engineering prowess to work and bringing cutting edge technologies to the most dominant browser in the market but it has far greater implications than just new technologies. The very introduction of new technologies suggests that bugs will be discovered so keeping the boundaries between software components is good as this enables proactive management.

The Windows operating system has a number of utilities that have come up to address weaknesses in the manner in which the operating system runs and manages itself and the programs that has been installed on it. Recently, I had the misfortune of a failed installation – the installation process of a program stopped prematurely and this meant that the program’s uninstaller was not installed. This became a problem that could not easily be fixed using Windows Control panel because I was not able to remove the program. I attempt to reinstall the program in effort to get the uninstaller in place but I was not able to reinstall since the said program has been supposed successfully installed. Just deleting the program would be the most logical thing to do but traces of the software would still remain in the registry and hence lead to a slower system in the long run. This particular situation illustrates a very common problem with most software running on Windows: it is much easier to get a program installed than it is to get it removed/uninstalled properly. There are countless pieces of software that leave their skeletal remains on the hard disk and Windows Registry. Such sloppiness shows a disregard to respect the ownership of the computer hardware on which the software runs – including the operating system.

In closing, users will want and should get the latest and the greatest software available on the market but software producers need to allow users to kick them out of their hard disks and do so with finality and assurance that there are no skeletons left on the hard disk or the registry. Even more importantly, stop with the production of Trojan horses. The fact that I downloaded and use iTunes does not mean that I either desire or want the latest and great version of Safari.

Would you not prefer to have the tools to remain in control of your computer?

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