Buy a PC, get free adware

You frame the shot of your loved one beautifully on your digital camera, with the setting sun at the perfect angle in the background. You press the button, and — wait a minute! — up pops an ad saying you’d get better results if you used the camera company’s own flash memory instead of the generic brand in the slot.

Or you click Print for your rush job, and you hear the printer whir into action. But all you get is an ad recommending you use the printer company’s official paper instead of the reams-for-cheap stuff you picked up at the warehouse store.

Today, those scenarios are fictional — or at least I hope so. But what’s real is the colonization of PCs by adware that doesn’t even need to sneak in from a rogue Web site — because it’s installed on your machine when you buy it.

Hewlett-Packard Co. calls the concept “Updates From HP” (on Compaq systems it’s “Compaq Connections”), and it’s an insult to customers. On the Media Center PC I tried, a few minutes after I finished setting up Windows, the program popped up with an ad for the HP Personal Media Drive.

This is the culmination of the dubious trend of using your desktop as a sales tool. Boot up a new system today and the desktop is likely to be larded with icons pitching stuff you don’t want. Good manners would suggest putting it all under a single “special offers” icon, but never underestimate the obnoxiousness of a marketer with a product to unload.

Updates From HP takes this to new lows. Its FAQ notes that security programs may try to block it, since it “phones home” for info. The privacy policy says the program sends a bit of non-personal data (which isn’t shared with third parties) back to HP.

On the PC I tried, it followed the ad with a pop-up noting “Important information about upgrading to SP2.” The pop-up links to a Web page that explains how to keep Updates From HP running when Windows XP Service Pack 2’s firewall tries to whack the program’s Internet access. Then the page attempts to sell you broadband, two Symantec products, and memory that it vaguely insinuates SP2 might need.

All of which may well distract you from the link leading to information that you really need. For the PC I was using, that page recommended installing seven downloads (for problems with everything from system restoration to XP Media Center itself) before installing SP2.

Updates From HP knows your PC configuration, so why couldn’t it deliver that information in the first place — along with the downloads in one handy package?

You can deactivate the Updates app, but if you do so, you’ll “miss important support notices…specifically for your PC model.” So you’re left with a choice: Tolerate ads to get useful information, or give up both.

Here’s what HP should do: Divorce ads from information and ask you to opt in for either one. Tying time-wasting pop-up ads to crucial system support is a lousy way to do business.

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