Crapware is the annoying software that worms into your computer without your knowledge. You can get it when you buy your PC—software companies pay PC makers to install the stuff on new machines—or when you download some ostensibly useful program from the Web. You might download Adobe’s Flash player, say, and only later discover that the installer also larded up your computer with a dubious “PC health check” program that tries to scare you into paying to “repair” your machine.
But ever since the summer of 2008, when Apple launched its App Store, the death of crapware has seemed imminent. The App Store promised to kill crapware by centralizing software distribution. Because it’s the only way to get apps on your phone, and because Apple prohibits crapware and reviews all the apps that get submitted to the store, you’ll never get unwanted programs when you install an app. There are lots of problems with this model—the App Store gives Apple too much control over the software market, letting it stifle competition and enforce prudishness. But one of the reasons the App Store has proved so popular is that it lets people try new software without having to worry that it will hurt their machines. That’s one reason why Android, Windows, Kindle, and the BlackBerry have all adopted similar centralized app stores. Many of these stores have more liberal review policies than Apple’s, but they all prohibit crapware. It seemed likely, then, that this scourge would soon be gone—if we all got our apps from app stores, and if someone was checking those apps to make sure they weren’t bundled with unwanted software, crapware would soon crap out.
But that’s not happening. Crapware has proved remarkably resilient, and now I fear it will stick around for years to come. That’s because device makers, cellular carriers, and some of the most prominent investors in Silicon Valley are keeping it alive. It’s also because Google and Microsoft, the only companies in a position to stop it, haven’t fought crapware with the passion it deserves. (Macs can get crapware through bundled downloads, too, but Apple doesn’t allow it to be preinstalled, and Apple’s centralized Mac App Store—which is becoming the favored way to distribute Mac programs—prohibits it.) And that gets to the main reason crapware lives on: There’s a lot of money in it. Indeed, the rise of app stores has perversely made crapware even more valuable than in the past. App stores are clogged with thousands of programs, so it’s harder than ever for software companies to get you to voluntarily download their stupid games, weather monitoring programs, and unnecessary security programs. That’s why they’re willing to pay a lot to get their stuff on your device without your permission—and that’s why crapware may never, ever die.