Google Pack

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Posted Thursday, Jan. 12, 2006 Though last week's launch of Google Video grabbed the headlines, the simultaneously announced Google Pack collection of software may be of more immediate value to computer users. Windows XP users, that is. Google Pack is intended to supplement the software that ships with a PC, providing it with a bit more security and ease of use. If that sounds like a slap in Microsoft's face, well then, maybe it is.

The story behind Google Pack, as told to me by Google's VP of Search Products and User Experience, Marissa Mayer, is that the company's two founders recently bought Windows PCs for family members, and were appalled at their out-of-box experiences. Once the computer was turned on, they had to spend time downloading the many applications necessary to actually use the thing. Fix it, they said. Mayer's team responded.

The core of the free Google Pack is, in essence, a software downloader and manager. It goes out and gets the latest versions of useful free programs that are not always known or easy to find. Spyware hunter Ad-Aware, PDF viewer Adobe Reader 7, privacy-minded web browser Mozilla Firefox, and streaming-media utility RealPlayer are among them, as well as a special six-month free trial of Norton AntiVirus. Each program is optional, and it's easy to create a custom set for installation. As new versions are posted, the Google Updater quietly updates your software. This prevents you from experiencing Adobe's bewildering update messages while trying to read a PDF; it also helps you with Firefox, which has an all-too-subtle way of telling you a new version is ready.

On top of the third-party programs, which Mayer assures me were chosen on their merits and not for strategic marketing purposes, Google also offers six of its own applications. Google Desktop, the desktop search program, and Picasa, the photo manager, along with Google Talk voice and messaging program, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, the ever entertaining Google Earth 3D map of the world, and a new screensaver, which flips your photos onto an idle screen in a pleasant collage.

Assuming your computer already comes with WordPad, for working on Microsoft Word files without running Word—and assuming, as Google would, that you use some Internet-based e-mail program such as Gmail—this might very well be the last software you install on your PC. It's not as complete as Apple's iLife suite—for one thing, there's no video editor—but for most people it's satisfactory. The only additions I would make to the Pack would be iTunes, the best music manager period, as well as QuickTime, which is often a download away when it's first needed.

I recommend giving Google Pack a try. Even if you've previously installed some of the programs, the Updater will take charge of keeping them up to date. The one exception is Norton AntiVirus. If you have a pre-existing version on your computer, especially an expired free version, you will need to go through the tedious task of uninstalling it. Only then can Google hook you up with that free six-month deal.