The Sorry State of Installing Software in the Year 2012

A couple of years ago (probably during the Windows XP timeframe) I was very particular about how I was installing software on my PC. I had made a separate partition P:\ that all programs were installed to and in each installer I would meticulously select which program options to install. Post-installation I would then organize the start menu entries in a way that made sense to me, for instance combining in one directory all media players or internet applications.

Today, I do none of that. I just click through the installer, accepting the default installation directory and just installing everything (disk space is cheap). And thanks to incremental search in the start menu (or start screen on Windows 8) I no longer need to care what folder a shortcut is in.

The way apps are installed through app stores is the logical progression of this development: I just pick the app I want and don’t need to know about the details of installation and updating. There is just a single progress bar assuring me that the installation is making progress (why would I need to know more?).

Story time

Unfortunately, not every application installs that easily. There are still plenty of examples where the installation is way more complicated than it needs to be. Just the other day, I had the “pleasure” of installing two applications from a major software vendor (not Microsoft) there were extremely painful.

The installer for application #1 was pretty standard: clicking through to accept the EULA, picking the installation directory and maybe something else (I didn’t pay attention). Every other screen also contained some useless status information (“installer is preparing installation”, “the installer is now ready to install” who cares?). The application came with a built-in updater (which is a good thing). So when running the application for the first time, it detected there was an update and asked permission to install it. After agreeing to the update, the installer went ahead and uninstalled everything from version 4.0 I had just installed and then ran an identical installer for the updated version 4.1 asking me to provide the same information all over again. Why?

The process for application #2 was even more ridiculous. Before buying it, I wanted to install the 30-day trial version. Instead of just providing a link to the installer, the vendor’s website forced me to download a “download manager” application whose only job is to download the installer for the application I actually want. Why? Before downloading the trial version, I needed to pick a directory for the installer (not the application installation directory, just a temporary directory for the installer). I have no idea why it didn’t just download to the TEMP directory or my user data directory. So I just picked something. While my software was downloading (it was more than a gigabyte and took a while even on broadband), I was shown some nice advertisings for other software from the same vendor I might like. I didn’t. So I left the computer. When I came back, the download was finished and the download manager just sat there. I assumed it would start the installer when it was ready, but it didn’t. Furthermore, there was no simple way to start the installer, other than manually navigating to the folder I had selected previously (which I couldn’t remember exactly because I had just picked something) and running the installer from there. The installer itself was pretty much the same as for application #1 above (except it already was the latest version).

Conclusion

I know this is a bit of a rant, but there is a morale to this story: Don’t make me think. OK, I stole that line from Steve Krug, but it applies here was well. Don’t have me make choices that I don’t care about. Joel Spolsky’s User Interface Design for Programmers has an entire chapter on choices and the importance of not providing to many. I totally agree with what both of them say. It’s appalling that even though these books came out many, many years ago, software makers still produce such lousy software forcing everyone to make pointless choices.

When it comes to installing software, I believe the only choice I should need to make is whether or not a I want an app. All those other details, I don’t want to have to think about.

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