Microsoft (MSFT ) has been taking some well-deserved lumps for the way it uses its Windows XP operating system to promote the company's other products and services. It isn't the only software maker to pepper its products with tie-ins and other pitches, but Microsoft's inescapable presence on most computer screens makes its efforts to leverage a little bit more out of its customers especially offensive.
Fortunately, if you resist Microsoft's initial pleas, it's not hard to make them go away. Most will give up on their own fairly quickly, and others can be ignored. Strictly speaking, this column describes only what you will see if you upgrade a computer to XP. PC manufacturers will use customized setups, so you may see even more pitches as America Online Inc. (AOL ) vies with Microsoft's MSN to be your Internet service provider.
One of the most annoying things about XP is its nagging attempts from the setup process on to get you to sign up for Microsoft's Passport service. Passport will eventually allow a single login to a variety of Web services but currently works mostly with Microsoft-owned or -affiliated services, such as Hotmail, MSN, and Expedia's (EXPE ) travel site. The only advantage I can see at the moment to integrating Passport into XP is notification of new Hotmail messages and easier access to your inbox. Contrary to some reports, you do not have to sign up for Passport to use XP. Ignore the request five times and it won't bother you again, though it leaves behind an icon in the lower right corner of the screen; click it and you get another Passport ad.
Still, Passport is a lot less persistent than Netscape 6.1. It is virtually impossible to use the new browser from the AOL subsidiary without setting up accounts for Netscape Webmail and AOL Instant Messenger.
Microsoft also uses the quick-launch area of the redesigned Start menu to promote company products such as Windows Media Player and MSN Explorer, a browser that is tightly linked to MSN services. As you use other programs, they gradually replace the initial offerings, though the system seems to have a chronic Microsoft bias. After extensive use, one of my XP computers continues to offer Microsoft Movie Maker on the list even though I have never used the program. I finally got rid of it by using an option that lets you start over with an empty program list. On the whole, XP does a reasonably good job of making your most frequently used programs the easiest to launch.
If you don't want Windows to suggest program choices to you at all, you can easily go back to the Windows 95-style start menu. Click on the Start button, select Properties from the menu, and click on Classic Start Menu. Nearly every feature of the Windows XP user interface can be customized, often to a considerable extent. Just click on a window or other design element, choose Properties, and explore.
Another source of irritation is the way Microsoft tries to steer your online music or photo business to either its own services or third parties that have, in effect, paid Microsoft to rent space on your desktop. By default, when you plug a digital camera into an XP computer, it brings up a Scanner and Camera wizard that gives you an opportunity to send pictures to Microsoft partners for printing. But when, for example, you install the software for a new Hewlett-Packard camera, it will bring up HP's photo-processing program instead.
OTHERS ARE GUILTY, TOO. The situation for audio and video players is more complex. You certainly can install RealNetworks' RealPlayer and RealJukebox on XP, and they will coexist with Windows Media Player, though which will be the default player for what types of media depends on the choices you make during the rather complex RealNetworks installation procedure. No matter how you do it, two things will happen: XP will try to steer your online music purchases to WindowsMedia.com, and RealNetworks will spray your desktop with icons for RealNetworks (RNWK ) products--even adding one for AOL--though you can just delete them.
Microsoft's efforts to leverage its desktop monopoly is especially egregious, but it is neither the only, nor the most obnoxious, player of this game. It's time for the whole software industry to grow up and show a little respect for consumers, who are quite capable of making their own intelligent choices.