The Thinker

And the award for the world’s most annoying program goes to…

Granted there is a lot of stiff competition out there for annoying programs. But to me it’s an easy call. Adobe Acrobat Reader is the world’s most annoying program.

It’s annoying because it fulfills an important need: rendering and printing documents. Because no matter how hard we try, we can’t kill the page. We still need pages and since we now live in an electronic world we need to render legal electronic documents perfectly on paper in an efficient manner. Lots of programs can put content onto pages but only Portable Document Format (PDF) and its ubiquitous Acrobat Reader companion can arguably display WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) page content onto virtually any device or operating system.

Technically the Microsoft Word format is an open standard, but in principle if you need to do word processing, you will uses Microsoft Word instead of its few competitors like OpenOffice. We use Adobe Acrobat Reader because the Adobe Corporation works hard to make Reader free and ubiquitous. It was first to market and has worked relentlessly to keep it there.

However, it manages to do so in a way that is not just obtrusive, but obnoxious. It feels like it constantly wants you to upgrade it, generally because hackers regularly find new security holes in the product. So Adobe patches the particular security hole and pushes out an urgent upgrade announcement that you will encounter. Chances are it won’t be long before the next upgrade announcement. If you are curious, then check out this link. Acrobat Reader Version 10 alone had eight security patches released in 2011. Version 9 had nine security patches in last year. And those are just the security patches. Each version of Acrobat introduces new features to the product and into PDF. If you receive a PDF that uses these features, Reader will detect this and urge you to upgrade Reader. It is hard to go more than a week without getting an annoying request to upgrade Reader on your device.

Enterprises do their best to manage these security patches for you, as does the organization where I work. Even so, I get version upgrade alerts, typically on my status bar in a pop up when I log in. Reader thoughtfully gives me a link to where I can download the upgrade. Unfortunately, most of us working in the enterprise don’t have permissions to upgrade the software. Adobe should be able to detect this and suppress the pop ups for us unempowered peons, but they can’t seem to be bothered to program around it. Which means you get an upgrade pop up every time you log into your machine until your service desk manages to push out a change.

Lots of products these days come with the silent upgrade capability. Google Chrome is a prominent example. Firefox is working on a similar feature. I am not sure why Acrobat cannot do the same thing. It may be because it requires more operating system permissions than browsers, which triggers security policies in the underlying operating system, hence the annoying pop ups. Or it may be that because it is so buggy, the operating system won’t trust its silent upgrades. However, I secretly suspect that Adobe likes being able to nag us via the upgrade process. It’s a way to tell us, “We’re alive! And we are still relevant!”

When you finally succumb and decide to upgrade, there is a decent chance Adobe will use the opportunity to market to you, principally to purchase their full-featured Adobe Acrobat product. If you are not careful, you might install Acrobat Air as well, which is usually bundled in the upgrade, and possibly upgrades to other Adobe products as well. You will probably be required to sit through a slew of these ads during the upgrade. Adobe sees the need to upgrade Reader as a back channel and free marketing mechanism.

You can in theory purge Reader from your computer. Of course, if you do so you won’t be able to read any documents in a PDF format, unless they come off the web and a PDF emulator is built into your browser. There are third party alternatives out there and here are a few. It’s likely that these alternatives will annoy you to upgrade less often, but it’s unclear if they can handle PDF documents that embed newer Acrobat features or if these products also have security holes or are even trustworthy. There are be plenty of security holes discovered in Reader, but at least you know that when found they should get patched.

There doesn’t seem to be a way for the computer user to win here. To escape Adobe Reader upgrade hell, you either have to give up the ability to see and print PDF files at all on your computer or use a potentially untrustworthy third party PDF reader that might not be able to handle new features being introduced into Acrobat by Adobe. Or you can continue to use Reader and put up with its constant annoying notices, upgrades, patches and advertising.

Of course, Adobe could engineer a solid product and give us a few years without security bugs or new features. But that would require solid software engineering and probably affect their bottom line. So there is little likelihood that this will happen.

Which means that it’s likely the Adobe Acrobat Reader aggravation will continue for years to come.

 

One Response to “And the award for the world’s most annoying program goes to…”

  1. 1:53 am on March 18 2012, Carlo Salvitti said:

    I gave up on Adobe Reader years ago. Even a minor upgrade, like version 9.01 to 9.03, ends up being the same size as the full download of 9.01. If it’s just a patch, why does it have to be the same size as the original? Do I feel like having to download another 15Mb every week?

    Send me the 1.5Mb difference in a patch instead.

    Not to mention they initially balked at 64-bit computing. If you ran a 64-bit OS, it failed to work properly. (They have since decided to support 64-bit, but only after chasing many users away.)

    You should check out Foxit Reader, by Fox Software. It’s free, like Adobe. It has much fewer security vulnerabilities, so it doesn’t need a weekly upgrade. It also supports most OSs, including smart phones, and, it’s much smaller than Adobe.

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