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Selling icons on the Windows desktop

The software ecosystem has interesting tentacles, says Simon Brew, as he investigates the trend of selling icons onto increasingly bloated Windows computers…

Bought a new laptop recently? If you’re trying to work out where manufacturers can make any kind of margin, given the squeeze on price and the sheer competitiveness of the market, then just take a look at the default set of icons you get on a Windows desktop. It’s no surprise, of course, that it takes about half an hour to remove all the stuff that you don’t want that seems to come pre-installed on a new machine, and it’s something that you tend to have to resign yourself to. It’s less of a problem outside the Windows world, of course, but even then, trying to buy a laptop without a Windows OS installed is something of a challenge in itself.

I’m very good at breaking laptops, and generally I therefore buy boring looking ones, that last longer. More recently, I wanted an economical portable based around an SSD, though, and that led me to the door of a new Acer model.

It’s been a long time since I bought an off-the-shelf machine in any form, and now I know why. As I booted the machine up for the first time, I was staggered by just what I found when I decided to take a look around Windows 7 again. I expected the usual icons for some security software of choice, and a trial of Microsoft Office. It seems it’s some kind of unwritten law that you get both of those now.

What surprised me were the icons for individuals websites. Why do I need an eBay icon on my desktop? Or for the Kobo e-reader system, when, and I checked the box, a Kobo e-reader hadn’t been included. Further joys? Some media guff that barely lasted seconds before I hit the delete key, a shortcut to ‘help’ me buy online from Acer, and a cornucopia of applications. Sigh. I could live with a useful program or two, certainly, but direct advertising on the desktop? Why don’t I just lend them my retinas, and allow them to inject subliminal messages into my eyes, and have done with.

Acer isn’t even the worst offender, but opening up the desktop of a new laptop gives compelling evidence for why so many companies want the existing status quo to remain. Just look at the economics of it. Assume, for the sake of argument, that Acer makes a 10% margin on its hardware. So, a £400 laptop brings in £40 profit at best. What price, then, selling icons to companies, or doing lucrative deals with software companies to ply their wares? Is that where the modern day hardware company has to make its cash?

It’s nothing new, of course. Back when most of us were on dial-up Internet, the Windows desktop arrived by default with icons for a selection of services to sign up to. This was no benevolent gesture on Microsoft’s part, you’ll no doubt be staggered to hear. Instead, it was a business move, a way of making money out of the captive audience that a Windows desktop inevitably attracts.

But that doesn’t make it right, does it? It’s like those DVDs that now come not only with an armful of forced movie trailers, but also ads for chocolate bars. We used to joke about the day when a free computer, paid for by adverts, would become mainstream. But we got it wrong. We pay for the computer now, and we get the adverts anyway. I can’t work out if that’s madness or genius. It’s quite possibly both.