Google security change breaks system for me (and a lot of others)

I installed a solid-state hard drive in my computer this weekend and lightning fast boot and application startup times mostly make up for any pain caused by having to reinstall my operating system and programs.

That being said, I wouldn't be writing this if there weren't a few hiccups. While I could write about my continual frustration with the way iTunes handles migration (I had issues despite taking every Apple recommended precaution), I feel like that's been written about 100 times and I'm not going to beat a dead horse.

It started after I installed Dragon NaturallySpeaking. One of the big features that prompted me to go to Nuance's 12th version of its speech recognition software was the promise of a browser extension which would enable the program to work better with Gmail's web interface. This is one less time I have to transfer text from a special dictation box into the text box on the web. It just works directly on the compose window.

I'm not going to claim it works perfectly. When I load a page with Flash, the extension crashes 60 percent of the time. This freezes the browser until a prompt comes up asking you to kill the process. I don't blame Nuance. Flash has a reputation for not playing nicely with anything, but this technical limitation makes YouTube an absolute nonstarter.

I reinstalled NaturallySpeaking and booted Chrome expecting it to ask me to enable the extension. (I've been through this process before. I know just enough about computers to end up breaking my own operating system a couple times.) Nothing. Curious, I open up Internet Explorer which immediately installs the extension. I return to Chrome which now has a message saying another program installed the extension, and because this was possibly without my knowledge, the extension has been disabled. Undeterred, I find the extension file in Dragon's program directory on my own and drag it over, thereby installing it myself. Chrome says the extension has been disabled because it is not from the Chrome Web Store. Now I'm a little peeved, but I decide to Google it.

That's when I came across this blog post from The Next Web. Google has decided to stop allowing third parties to install their own extensions on Windows because hackers have found a way to exploit systems through Chrome extensions installed outside the store.

While Google's intentions in this area are noble and I agree with the basic rationale behind the decision, there are a couple problems with the execution in this scenario. First, I wasn't notified and had to find out about the change through my own research. Although the switch was flipped on this change in late May, there was never any message explaining the policy. It would be easy to imagine a scenario where Google could have disabled the extensions, but offered a checkbox for users to keep using third-party extensions that they needed. This is a concept already implemented in Android.

There are also plenty of perfectly valid reasons why you might not want your extension in the Chrome Store. In this particular case, I view it as perfectly reasonable for Nuance to want to install the extension directly alongside its software. Because NaturallySpeaking is required for the extension to work, listing it alongside other extensions in the store could cause confusion for Chrome users who might be familiar with the NaturallySpeaking brand and technology, but think that it's a standalone application. You don't want your product badmouthed when they find that it doesn't work without the software.

I guess I will have to hope Nuance puts its extension in the Web Store or that Google changes its policy. I know I'm not the only one with a third-party extension affected by this issue. Google had several options in order to deal with this situation, but limiting consumer choice shouldn't have been one of them.