Friday, October 21, 2005

software: no path to decent anti-virus, or other system software

The trial Norton AntiVirus I picked when I upgraded to XP SP2 has expired. I was on the verge of ordering Norton AV 2006 when the form prompted me for a "coupon code", and a Google search pointed me to this litany of horror stories regarding anti-virus software: botched upgrades, software that won't uninstall cleanly, incompetent support, etc. Which reminded me of my own Symantec software renewal heck on another PC, and two friends' off-and-on problems with McAfee updates.

Experienced users are clear about what they want from system software like anti-virus:
  • do one thing only and do it well
  • if it does lots of things, install and enable only those features the user wants
  • make it easy to later disable and uninstall unwanted features
  • not litter the Windows registry with lots of confusing values
  • run few startup programs, services, system tray icons, and processes
  • those few should be obvious, well-named, and easy to disable and uninstall
  • implement a simple reliable subscription update service that continues to work for years
  • upgrade in-place cleanly
  • uninstall cleanly
  • have good diagnostics linked to a complete knowledge base for when (not if) it goes wrong
That's what matters to me for anti-virus, CD burners, media players, photo organizers, printers, scanners, etc. because software that does too much and does it badly is going to f*** my computer over.

Yet it's impossible to find how well a given piece of software does on these criteria before committing to it. The worthless reviews in PC magazines never cover these issues: the reviewer obviously installs the software on a virgin PC, does a cursory run-through of its features, runs some dubious performance tests ("It scanned 23,571 files on my hard drive in 42 minutes!"), finds some trivial flaw to prove she or he is paying attention ("It failed to unpack a compressed .ARC file from 1986") then wipes the disk clean and writes a glowing puff piece that's little better than the manufacturer's feature list.

Returning to anti-virus software, the big names do too much and the 'net is full of horror stories of them going wrong. But are the smaller companies any better? It's hard to tell; Trend Micro PC-cillin says "features include Home Network Control and Wi-Fi Intrusion Detection" and AVG's technical FAQ won't even render in my Firefox 1.5beta2.

"It works for me" testimonials are no use; 18 months ago I would have said Norton AntiVirus works fine and updates cleanly.

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