One of the most common performance complaints I get is “The internet is slow”. Sometimes this is related to the performance of your network, but most of the time the problem is actually toolbars installed on your browser. “Huh, I didn’t install any toolbar?” you question! My answer, yes and no.

What’s a toolbar?

Toolbars are software that attach themselves to your internet browser. On the surface they appear to offer additional functionality. They may claim to enhance your ability to search, or find coupons to save you money. Some even claim to enhance the security of your browsing experience. At best they are poorly maintained programs and at worst they stealing your private information and sending it to hackers. (If they are claiming to enhance your security, chances are they are doing the opposite).

Toolbar Example

Examples of various toolbars

There’s no free lunch

One thing most toolbars have in common is they claim to provide something for nothing. As consumers, we have been taught to distrust the word “free”. That advice holds true on the internet. If a piece of software or service claims to be offered to you for free, they are playing fast and loose with the term. Take me for instance. The cost of this advice on it’s own is zero. In reality I’m giving this time to you as a form of advertising in an attempt to draw business. This holds true for nearly all the content on the internet. If a company is behind it, that company has to earn a profit.

Developing the toolbar isn’t cheap. My primary form of employment is software development. Trust me when I say, even simple toolbars require perhaps tens and most likely hundreds of hours (or more) of skilled labor to produce the initial release. The company that creates the toolbar is expecting a return on that investment. To re-use my earlier turn of phrase, they are at best advertising to you, and at worst stealing your personal information. In almost all cases they are slowing your browsing experience.

Ok Wes, but I don’t remember installing that toolbar!!!

I have cleaned misbehaving toolbars off more computers than I can count. For someone who doesn’t work in the computer industry, my wife is very savvy. I have had to remove toolbars from her computers on a couple of occasions. The more surprised you are by the presence of a toolbar the more likely it is doing something malicious. Toolbar creators are a devious bunch and a picture is worth a thousand words. See if this looks familiar.

java-ask-foistware-516x393

Notice the check boxes? Now why would something like Java want to install a toolbar from Ask.com? Java is free right? Heck, the toolbar is free to right? Nope, no free lunch. Ask.com is paying the providers of Java (Oracle) to put this little checkbox in their installer and they are banking on us not paying attention to it. Ask.com then uses that toolbar to direct your search traffic away from your search engine of choice to Ask. Their website sells ads and they earn money by showing them to you. What’s the downside? Like any company, Ask.com wants to earn as much money as possible and so, they want to spend as little as possible maintaining that toolbar. Doesn’t sound like a recipe for quality does it?

Un-check that box my friends

The reality of the internet these days is that we rely on “free” tools like Java and Flash. We need them for lots of websites. So how do we continue to use the internet and limit our risk? Un-check that box and Java will still install. Oracle still has a way to make money from producing Java they just won’t be able to extract it as quickly from you. If you un-check a box like this and aren’t able to click “Next” then click “Cancel” and live with out it. The risk isn’t worth it.

If you get caught and your surfing experience feels more like riding pudding than waves, give me a call, I Speak Nerd.

Cheers

–Wes