How software installers should work

Via e-mail, Dwight Silverman asks some questions about my coverage of the iTunes 8 mess. My answers appear in his follow-up post, but I thought they were worth sharing here as well, especially because the same questions have appeared a few times in the Talkback section over at ZDNet.

Dwight asks:

You take Apple to task for installing more than just iTunes without disclosing what it’s doing, including the installation of additional drivers. But I am not aware of any Windows program that installs drivers as part of an overall package that says, “OK, we’re installing these drivers.” I wish they would, but they typically don’t.

My response:

These days, many software companies include some sort of changelog or readme file as part of a new release. If Apple did that, they could note that they updated the two drivers in their changelog. They might even make a note of what those drivers do and why they’ve been updated. Had they done that, the troubleshooting would have been easier.

Dwight’s second question:

In addition, there are a lot of Windows programs that install other software modules and don’t mention them — and not necessarily spyware. This is fairly common. Is what Apple’s doing with Quicktime really all that unusual?

My response:

Really? I install a lot of Windows software. In most cases that I have encountered involving complex software, there is a Custom install option that allows you to choose or exclude various modules. I use the Custom install option for everything. If the installer offers third-party software, such as the Google toolbar, you are always given notice and allowed to choose not to install it. Google, in fact, insists on that. Most of those other companies also include at least a pro forma mention in their license agreement about other software they’re installing.

Apple doesn’t do either of those things. At some time in the past, iTunes was just that. Then it became iTunes+QuickTime. Then it became iTunes+QuickTime+a bunch of other stuff. But they don’t tell you about the other stuff in their license agreement, in the notice they offer as part of the update text, or in their installation. You click the button, and it all gets installed. Your only option is to install it all, then go to Control Panel later and uninstall it. Until the next update, when you have to go through the same dance again.

Maybe some examples would help. I’ve included them in the extended edition of this post.

Here’s the screen you see early in the installation process for Adobe Acrobat 8.1. You can see I’ve selected a custom installation:

Acrobat Custom Installer

The very next screen gives me the option to deselect any of the modules included with the program:

Acrobat install details

I especially like the fact that selecting an item allows me to see a description of what that feature does and how much space it will require on my hard drive.

And then there’s Siber Systems’ RoboForm. It does automatic and manual update checking as well.


When I go to the update page, one of the options available is called Release News. Here’s a snippet of what’s on that web page:


There’s plenty of precedent in the software industry for disclosing changes to your users and asking their consent before installing modules that aren’t essential.

17 thoughts on “How software installers should work

  1. I actually installed itunes 8 and i remember that i specifically ticked off bonjour service and that update thingie. guess what, they had been installed anyway.

  2. Well of course they installed. Who wouldn’t want Apple to autoupdate their wonderful software and why aren’t you using bonjour? Apple obviously thinks you need it.


    I suppose it’s easier on them since they can assume that everyone is autoupdating and that everyone has bonjour installed so therefore they have to spend less on tech support and the fact that Apple knows best of course.

  3. Keep in mind the following:

    QuickTime – iTunes on Mac & Windows uses QuickTime for encoding files and playing them back. Without quicktime, iTunes is just a pretty GUI that can do NOTHING. That is why you can’t uninstall it or not install it.

    Software Update – It has been proven time and time again that few people keep their software applications up-to-date without software update features being included and turned on. I still run into computers that run old versions of QuickTime and iTunes. In the past, there has been security issues with QuickTime, so Software Update is a good thing. Those who want control can easily uninstall or turn it off.

    Bonjour is used by iTunes show you can listen to other people’s shared libraries. I also believe it is used with AppleTV and probably even the iTunes Remote software that you can download on iPhones/iTouches.

    There you go, logical explanations for this software to be installed automatically with iTunes.

  4. Jon Daley,

    Well, except for the fact that Microsoft clearly documented its upcoming update and published both the schedule for release and all features included. Oh, and it didn’t cause BSODs.

    But other than that, yeah, no difference. 😉

  5. Apple’s arrogance never ceases to amaze me, and it just keeps increasing.

    I liked your reference to change notes. Has anyone ever seen any apple change notes that said anything other than:

    Bug fixes


  6. @Chris G-

    “Software Update – It has been proven time and time again that few people keep their software applications up-to-date without software update features being included and turned on. I still run into computers that run old versions of QuickTime and iTunes. In the past, there has been security issues with QuickTime, so Software Update is a good thing. Those who want control can easily uninstall or turn it off.”

    Maybe this is not a good thing. Maybe I don’t want ASU on my computer at all. It is my machine and maybe I want to control the extra software that installs and autoruns. Perhaps it is a bad thing. Have you not heard that updates can sometimes break machines? Have you read about how iTunes 8 broke some Vista machines? I and many others think it is bad behavior to foist these applications on users without users having the ability to say no.

    Yes, Apple is evil when they overload Windows machines with extraneous applications that are unnecessary to the application the user thinks they are installing. Your “logical explanations” do not justify bad corporate behavior to me.

  7. I believe Apple to be an arrogant company and this is culturally systemic.

    Nonetheless, I also believe their woeful user installation problems are most likely a personnel problem, resulting from Apple’s inability or unwillingness to acquire/ retain capable Windows programmers. I have absolutely no foundation for the previous statements other than my hunches.

    The only time I find myself getting peeved at MS is when I do a fresh install of my somewhat dated copies of XP. Once the initial (huge) batch of service packs and updates are installed, I have no problems with Windows Update.

  8. I’ve felt this way about iTunes since Safari for Windows was foisted on me (and still is) in the “iTunes update.” It is annoying to me that I must consciously deselect Safari whenever Apple issues an “update.”

    Thanks for the detailed information about other “updated” software that’s being rammed down my throat — and that of millions of others.

  9. Hey Ed, I think the real question is “how software uninstallers should work”. Compared with installers, uninstallers are plain pure junk.

    R: Removing all everything they installed.

  10. @ed: Sorry – didn’t get around to coming back. As I recall the “clearly documented” meant reading this blog, which I’d expect most of the world does not. At least, I never saw it posted anywhere except here.

    @jon: and have you ever seen any windows update that said anything except: “this update will correct an issue that allows remote attackers to gain access to your machine.” You click on the link to find out more, and then hunt around for the technical information and finally figure out what the actual issue is and whether it affects you or not. I assume Microsoft has stats on how many people actually click through to the place that actually tells them any content – I’d expect the numbers to be 1-2%, so again, it seems that Apple and Microsoft are in the same boat as to telling people what issues have been fixed.

    I love the firefox updates that link directly to the changelog with the specific issues spoken mentioned, with links to even more technical docs, bug reports, etc. I realize that probably I am the only one that clicks on them, but at least I can actually read about them, as opposed to Apple’s and Microsoft’s stuff, where it is treated like classified information.

  11. Oh, cut the crap, Jon. Microsoft’s plans to issue a new client for Windows Update were disclosed in a half-dozen places on the Microsoft website and in dozens of news sources. I’m flattered that you think I’m somehow the only person who noticed, but you’re just wrong.

    Here was the primary source:

    And every single security update is disclosed a week in advance. Each new update has a KB article that goes with it. Microsoft does a webcast in advance of its monthly patches. Apple? Uh…

    C’mon, if you want to bash Microsoft, you really should pick something else.

  12. Do you honestly believe that?

    Can you make a guess at what percentage of the Microsoft Windows users saw any of those notices?

    I don’t know of any. I’ve never been to as far as I know.

    And even if you argue that people do go to microsoft’s web site to watch for news, I’ll still argue that the notices should occur during the update, not some extra source.

    How many people watch the Microsoft webcasts?

    And I already said how hard it is to get to the actual details of the updates.

  13. What you seem to be missing, Jon, is that the kind of people who get worked up over “stealth” security updates and such are exactly the sort of people who subscribe to security sites and read security mailing lists and keep up with tech news. I don’t particularly care that Joe Average didn’t see it. Joe Average didn’t know or care that the Windows Update Agent refreshed itself, as it has done every so often for several years.

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