3/15/2009

How NOT to create user-friendly application installers

Trying to be a first-rate reporter on the average American newspaper is like trying to play Bach's St. Matthew's Passion on a ukulele.  - Bagdikian's Observation

This is an issue I've come up against enough times to feel the need to gripe about it. You get the Windows Live installer to install the "new" Windows Live family of products (Messenger, Live Writer, Mail, Photo Gallery, etc.) and it fails. That's after you wait for everything to download (because the web installer is just a wrapper over what it downloads after you select which programs you want).

So then you use the "Try Again" button which downloads a 135 MB WLSETUP_ALL.EXE installer. Boy, I sure hope you’ve got a high speed connection. So you run that and once again, after you've waited for it to go all the way through to the end, only then does it proceed to "roll back" everything - which takes almost as long as the supposed installation did!

Now you’ve gone through maybe a half hour or more of pure frustration, and you’re left with – NADA.

Now you’ve  got some cryptic error messages to work with, and a link to a "Help" web page that turns out to be next to useless. Not only that, but the WLSETUP_ALL deal cannot be opened as an archive to extract individual .MSI installers, so you cannot even try to run individual ones in the hopes that they might work that way.

Yikes! I’ve always believed in “less is more” –- this is an example of “more is less!”--now there are a couple of ways to fix this issue, I'll detail the two most popular: If you just want Windows Live Messenger, the kind folks at Softpedia have a page from which you can download the latest 24 MB standalone installer (Feb. 6 2009 is the latest build I found):

http://www.softpedia.com/progDownload/Windows-Live-Messenger-9-Download-89148.html

Apparently Microsoft no longer makes the standalone installers publicly available, they seem to be too wrapped up in their new hotshot “packaging” single installer façade scheme.

The second method (and it may not always work) is to locate the cached .MSI Installers that have been deposited on your hard drive. These should be located at C:\Program Files (x86)\Common Files\Windows Live\.cache. The (x86) is for 64-bit OS installations – you can remove that from the path if you’re a 32-bit person. In that folder there is a cache.ini file you can load in Notepad and see the actual paths to each installer in those wacko cryptic Microsoft  subfolders. Or you can just search for *.msi in windows explorer.

Once you have located the correct Messenger.msi installer, you can try installing with that. Oh, and did I mention --you probably will want to run the Contacts.msi installer first to avoid install errors. So go find that one, too.

This brings me to another annoyance: Do you remember when software installed itself and that is all it installed? I mean, if you needed to do a repair or a reinstall you would need the original media, right? Now it seems that every installer creates copies of itself all over your fyookin’ hard drive, taking up all kinds of space, having squatter’s rights, and leaving you the poor user, with no recourse.  There’s no fact disclosure at all. Have you ever wondered why your available disk space keeps declining over time, even though you use disk space cleaner-uppers regularly? This is why! It’s a conspiracy to eat up our hard drives!

If you haven’t gone through this little escapade with Windows Live, consider yourself lucky – there are a variety of reasons why this kind of “Multiple” Setup installer can fail, you probably just don’t have any of them --yet. But the fact of the matter is, you can get them, and it can cause real frustration because of the way everything is “un-bundleable” with this scheme. I’ve seen installers that fail because the Error Reporting Service is disabled, or if the Windows Firewall is turned off. Lots of antivirus programs have their own firewalls – you don’t need two of them running. But an installer program should not fail because of this – that’s just plain bad design.

This “entire Family only” install scheme is in my opinion a very non-user-friendly approach that I believe comes from marketing (e.g. "Let’s promote the "Windows Live Family”) rather than common sense about making it easier on users when something goes wrong. Not being able to load the EXE in say, WinRar and be able to extract individual MSI installer files is just adding insult to injury. I know I’m not alone in this gripe – because I’ve heard from friends with similar issues.

If you are still having problems with Windows Live Messenger or related proggies, try using the Windows Installer Cleanup Utility. This is a Microsoft product that removes all registry installer information for a selected program, making it easier to fool a new MSI installer that the program it’s trying to install is not there already. It’s unfortunate that we actually have to create new products just to clean up the buggy crap we’ve already produced, but – hey – that’s progress!

BTW – if you want to get Messenger to show up in the Notification Area on Windows 7 instead of the Taskbar, just set it’s Compatibility Mode to “Windows Vista”.