When Software Wreaks Havoc

Any time you install a program, you run the risk that it will zap some other one

A while ago, I downloaded the latest version of RealNetworks'(RNWK) RealPlayer to my PC. Along with the player, it installed a little utility called NetZip Download Demon that was supposed to make it easier to fetch files from the Internet. To my surprise, NetZip wreaked havoc on my computer, rendering my Netscape e-mail program and browser unusable and requiring several calls to Netscape tech support to get back into operation.

This is, alas, a common phenomenon. Any time you install a new piece of software on your PC, you run the risk that it will zap some other program, perhaps something vital. (Macs can suffer similar problems, but they happen less often and are more easily repaired.)

More commonly, a new program will take over the duties of an existing application. NetZip, for example, decided that it, not my trusty WinZip, would be the default program for decompressing downloaded files. Most music-management programs will depose your current MP3 or CD player in favor of themselves.

That's not the end of rude behavior. Some programs scatter icons on your desktop. Others install themselves in the system tray, the area in the lower left corner of the Windows screen that is supposed to be reserved for system-critical tasks. This is especially troublesome because programs represented in the system tray fire up whenever you boot your computer. Each addition slows startup and decreases the stability of your system. Only programs that must always be running in order to function belong there, like virus scanners or new-mail notifiers.

BITS AND PIECES. Blame for this mess is divided between Microsoft (MSFT) and other software companies. Microsoft has made it far too easy for new programs to overwrite critical components of installed software. Recent versions of Windows have added some protection, but not enough. Software developers often break such rules as Microsoft has tried to lay down, change the settings of other programs, and include "uninstaller" routines that leave bits and pieces of deleted programs lying around to cause trouble.

So what's a poor consumer to do? The sad fact is that your options are limited. The most important thing is to pay attention during any program installation. The easiest way to get into trouble is by blindly clicking on "OK" whenever you are asked a question during installation. The options you are offered aren't always clear. When in doubt, say no. It's almost always the safer choice.

Sometimes you have to plow through a lot of options. RealNetworks has revised the RealPlayer setup to give you more control. But if you accept all the defaults, you'll end up with several extra programs, two new applications in the system tray, and five icons scattered on your desktop. Left to its own devices, a download of Netscape Communicator will also install AOL Instant Messenger and the WinAmp MP3 player (both from corporate parent America Online), and will make Navigator your default browser and even change the home page on Microsoft Internet Explorer.

You can buy some protection. Programs like Norton CleanSweep from Symantec (SYMC) ($30) or Uninstaller from McAfee (MCAF) ($40) monitor everything a program does during installation to facilitate its complete removal. GoBack from Adaptec (ADPT) ($75) can restore your system to what it was before a nasty installation. All of these programs, however, can slow your system, especially during an installation, and GoBack claims 10% of your hard drive as well.

The better solution is for software companies to clean up their acts and stop sending out sloppy, ill-mannered packages. But I'm not optimistic since the situation seems to be getting steadily worse as applications and operating systems grow ever more complex. For now, the best course is to be careful about what you install and how you install it.

If some piece of software has made a mess of your computer, don't lose hope. Go to Tech&You online at www.businessweek.com/technology/ for advice on how to clean up the mess.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.