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Sunday, 23 March 2008 13:00

Sony charges, then retracts, a US $50 fee to deliver a 'clean' PC

When you buy a computer today, it often comes with a range of third party software, pre-loaded for your ‘convenience’. Sometimes it’s useful – such as a pre-loaded Internet security suite with a 15 month subscription, other times it’s useless demo software that’s just taking up space and must be manually uninstalled. Why do companies do this, and why did Sony decide to charge money to take the ‘unwanted’ software away?

Articles all over the Internet from range of news sites have brought forth the news that Sony, in the US, with their TZ200 Vaio Notebook, wanted to charge users an additional US $49.95 to deliver a ‘Fresh Start’ computer, free of useful and/or annoying third party software.

After a world of online outrage, Sony did the unthinkable – they moved in stunning record time to issue a statement that, from now onwards, they would no longer charge this additional fee to deliver users a computer with little more than Windows Vista and the software contained within.

The wording of Sony’s ‘Fresh Start’ option, which was charged at $49.95, was as follows: “Opt for a Fresh Start and your VAIO PC will undergo a system optimization service where specific VAIO applications, trial software and games are removed from your unit prior to shipment. Fresh Start safely scrubs your PC to free up valuable hard drive space and conserve memory and processing power while maximizing overall system performance right from the start.”

What many have noted is that this option is only available when a Sony notebook buyer chooses the US $100 expensive ‘Vista Business’ option, rather than the Windows Vista Home Premium option, which still doesn’t come with the ‘Fresh Start’ option.

So, why do PC companies offer third party software? It’s a practice that has been happening for years across all the major brand names, and in the early, pre-Internet days, was a way for a computer to come pre-loaded with some games, some educational software, some utilities and basically some things for the user to play with, without needing to race off to immediately buy some additional software.

It’s a bit like buying a DVD player and getting some free movies, giving you something to watch right away.

Computer companies did this because they could charge those software companies a fee for including their software on every PC they made.

It gave computer manufacturers an additional revenue stream, over and above that made from simply selling the PC to a consumer, either letting that company charge consumers less for each computer, or to simply book a higher profit.

Sony obviously decided to charge extra money because it would make up for the lost revenue stream from not being able to include third party software, as well as making up for the fact that a bit of extra work would need to be done in the factory to ensure the PC came with Windows only, rather than all that third party software, which some have called 'crapware'.

As the Internet became more popular, and the need for a decent firewall, anti-virus and other Internet protection software became ever more critical, PC manufacturers started pre-loading Norton Internet Security or McAfee Internet Security onto PCs.

While these Internet security packages initially only came with a 3 month license, I know that McAfee have been offering users a 15 month subscription on (at least some) Dell computers, actually delivering the end-user a valuable piece of additional software they don’t have to worry about for more than a year.

So, what should computer manufacturers be doing? Please read onto page 2.

What some commenters online at different articles have been wondering is if the system restore CDs or DVDs that come with the Sony Vaio TZ200 notebook will pre-load all the third party software you might have chosen not to have delivered to you, should the need for restoring the system ever arise.

Questions have also arisen as to why computer manufacturers can’t then give users a choice when they install their computers – here is the CD or DVD with Windows, and here is another disc with all the third party software.

Actually some manufacturers have done just that, or at least they did, in the past. But others lump it all together.

What it all comes down to is that users need to be given a choice. If a user gets a PC with stuff pre-loaded, they need to be able to click on an icon to have some, or all of it removed, both from the hard drive and the registry, if desired.

Of course the best way of doing this is at the point of online sale, giving users the choice as Sony has done, but across the entire range and with all versions of an operating system, not just Vista Business.

But this is harder in a retail situation where the box has left the factory weeks or months ago and is waiting to be sold in a Wal-Mart, Harvey Norman or other computer store.

This is where users should have that icon to easily and reliably remove all they don’t want to have loaded on the computer.

Alternatives would be to give users the choice to re-install from a ‘clean’ Windows DVD, or to additionally have a few gigabytes of the hard drive saved as a restore point, as seen on many Lenovo PCs, although with the choice to either install, or not install, any of the additional software.

Sony have done the right thing by firstly offering users a ‘Fresh Start’ option, and then did the right thing again by removing the $49.95 cost to get this option.

We now need this to be available across all PC manufacturers, for all versions of Windows, to put the power back into consumer’s hands, rather than being forced to accept whatever we get after handing over our hard earned money.

Perhaps Sony’s moves will now motivate other PC manufacturers to do the same – and put their customers, and not just an uncaring focus on nothing else but the bottom line – first.

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Alex Zaharov-Reutt

One of Australia’s best-known technology journalists and consumer tech experts, Alex has appeared in his capacity as technology expert on all of Australia’s free-to-air and pay TV networks on all the major news and current affairs programs, on commercial and public radio, and technology, lifestyle and reality TV shows. Visit Alex at Twitter here.



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