Beware Of Software Bearing Gifts


If your applications aren’t behaving the way you expect, the problem may not be where you think. Peter Judge found that familiar, trusted software may not be quite what it appears

Starting any job means picking up new ways of doing things. In my case, the UK editor’s mantle at eWEEK Europe brings with it an exciting group of new colleagues – and also a set of corporate software.

eWEEK Europe is delivered to you by a publishing system, and I collaborate with my colleagues using Skype, a chatroom, and Microsoft Outlook.

I’m fine with Skype, but the publishing system and the chatroom are necessarily new to me. I was expecting a learning curve, and maybe a few teething problems with the new stuff.

And of course, there have been teething troubles. But it turns out they aren’t with the new stuff. The problems have been with my existing tools, which I trust.

The publishing system started out fine, but starting a couple of days ago, I had trouble publishing. The system swallowed stories of mine, and this made me mad. It took a chat with the IT department to sort out that the source of the problem wasn’t the publishing system – it was much closer to home.

I use Firefox, and I found the window with the publishing system would not update when I saved. Worse, random actions seemed to make it lose copy. I blamed the publishing system, till my IT colleague Alain prompted me to look at other programmes, and they did the same thing.

The problem clearly was Firefox, and one I had overlooked because I trusted it. After that, it was absurdly quick to fix. I checked my Add-ons, and found the notorious Ask Toolbar. Once this was removed, everything worked fine.

The Ask toolbar is often cited as nuisanceware. I didn’t knowingly install it – where did it come from?

Could it have sprung from my PC’s initial complement of software? As Larry Seltzer points out, Norton has a deal with Symantec. My PC came with Norton, and I can see that has installed a toolbar for Firefox. Could it have installed Ask as well?

Probably not, on balance. The problem started a few days into my tenure here, so I have to accept that it’s more likely to have come in with software I installed – and the likely culprit is Digsby. 

Digsby is a great universal IM client, which pulls together AIM, Yahoo, MSN and Facebook, all without the ads they push. Ironically, during the install process, you have to be aware and actively opt out of other installs, or you get a whole lot of things you didn’t “ask” for… like Ask. My guess is I slipped up and left a tick in a box, while I installed Digsby.

Either way, the lesson from this is that familiar software is not always as familiar as you think.

At one point as I described my browser’s behaviour to Alain, he asked me “Are you sure that is Firefox you are using?”. These inadvertant add-ons had turned it into such a mutant cripple. I’d say it wasn’t.

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