AOL CDs (1993 to 2006)
As our #1 worst product of all time, America Online gave all of us plenty to be irked about over many, many years.
But the carpet bombing of free AOL discs was possibly the most annoying (and environmentally irresponsible) marketing campaign ever waged.
Estimates put the number of discs shipped between July 1993 and July 2006 at over 1 billion; we feel like we received that many ourselves.
Windows Me (2000)
Obviously, you agreed with our take last year when we called Windows Me the "worst version of Windows ever released." It was a mess.
Shortly after its release a tidal wave of bug reports smashed into Redmond. Installation was difficult, hardware driver support was sketchy, and system crashes were routine.
As one PC World columnist said: "If you upgraded to Me from an older version of Windows, you might feel that the term Millennium refers to the length of time it will take to fix the glitches."
Apple iTunes, Microsoft Windows Media Player, Microsoft Zune, Napster (2003 to present)
The media players themselves are mostly fine, but their incompatible digital rights management (DRM) schemes drive us nuts. Despite Apple's recent decision to sell some DRM-free songs, most iTunes tunes still play only on iPods, a couple of Motorola phones, or a computer with iTunes software on it. (And the DRM-free songs cost 30 cents more.)
Windows Media files are worse--now, two different, totally incompatible DRM file formats use the .wma file extension. So if you buy a WMA file from a service that uses Microsoft's PlaysForSure DRM (most notably Napster), it won't work with the Zune (which uses Microsoft's Zune DRM). Can't we all just get along?
Microsoft has said it will "soon" sell DRM-free music for the Zune. We'll see.
McAfee Internet Security, Symantec Norton Internet Security (1998 to present)
Security suites are supposed to be like personal bodyguards for your PC, quietly enforcing the rules and keeping you safe without drawing attention to themselves. Not these two.
Norton and McAfee are constantly prompting us to check our security settings, update our subscriptions, and/or buy more products. Given that most new PCs ship with one of these two packages preinstalled--and their subscriptions typically expire after 90 days--it's almost certain they'll nag you too. We have enough problems with our machines' security without also having to worry about our security software.
Real Networks (Progressive Networks) RealPlayer (1996 to 2004)
The most annoying product on our list is also #2 on our list of the all-time worst products. Why did it leapfrog AOL to become the annoyances champ? Mostly because it had a relentless pushiness about everything it did.
For example, in 1996 Progressive Networks (now called Real Networks) began offering RealPlayer in a $30 Plus version and a free version, but finding the download link for the free one was like playing "Where's Waldo" on the Real.com site. Once you tracked down and installed the free player, it declared itself your default media player for all file formats and began nagging you to pony up $30 for Plus.
Later versions installed themselves into your Windows system tray and popped up pointless (and annoying) "special offers" from Real advertisers. And, of course, Real's notorious attempts to assign unique ID numbers and track consumer media usage--anonymously or otherwise--did nothing to endear itself to us. Pay $30 for this pioneer of pushiness? Get real.
Bonzi Buddy (1999-2004)
Described as a "helper" application, Bonzi Buddy delivered contextual ads to your PC, basically after collecting information from you. Its passing has not been mourned.
As reader Randy J put it to us: "I used to do support for one of the big ISPs. Bonzi Buddy was one to remember. I once used a computer with it on there. It kept popping up and obscuring things you needed to see. I had to uninstall it from many, many people's systems."
MySpace (2003 to present)
Gwendolyn would like to be added as one of your friends. Brittany would like to be added as one of your friends. Latisha would like you to view her free adult video, which incidentally will download spyware to your hard drive.
Sure, the biggest Web sites always attract scammers (see eBay), but they don't have to make it easy. MySpace's minimal barriers to entry make it a haven for bogus "friends."
Microsoft Windows Vista (2007)
It's one of the unwritten laws of computing: All versions of Windows are annoying. Vista wins a prize in part because of its overzealous "Cancel or Continue?" confirmation windows so brilliantly lampooned by Apple's "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" commercials.
But that's only the tip of the Vista annoyance iceberg. Installing Vista onto an older system? There's a good chance that your graphics card, sound card, and some of your older software won't work properly. And even if you have a new system with either the Premium or Ultimate version installed, Vista won't display its nifty 3D Aero interface if your PC lacks the graphics horsepower for it. No warning screens, no error messages, no explanations--Aero simply doesn't work. That's annoying.
Microsoft Windows Update (1998 to present)
Yes, we know, our computers would be even more vulnerable if we didn't use Update to plug Windows' seemingly endless security holes. But using it to distribute Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage tattleware puts Update firmly in the annoyance column (not to mention the way it autorestarts your system after it's done installing).
Delivered as a "critical" update last spring, WGA installed itself with minimal notice, secretly phoned home with information about users' systems, and wrongly identified possibly millions of legitimate copies of Windows XP as pirated.
Apple QuickTime for Windows (2001 to present)
What is it about media players that makes them think they own your PC? Install QuickTime, and it immediately sets up camp in your Windows system tray, drops icons on your desktop, and loads the qttask.exe applet every time you power up--no questions asked.
You can kick it out of the tray, but the next time you upgrade or reinstall the program, it sneaks back in. Worse, if you want to use iTunes, you have to take QuickTime along with it. Plenty of programs are looking for a home in your system tray, but most of them ask politely first.