Modern Software Experience

2009-12-18

MyHeritage Family Tree Builder

This is the second time that I dedicate an entire article to nothing but the download, installation and start-up of a single application - and I am not doing so because its download, install and start-up are without problems.

home page hijacking

As detailed in MyHeritage hijacking homepages, the installer for MyHeritage Family Tree Builder version 3 does not just install the application, but also messes with your browser settings. If you let it, the installers will make MyHeritage.com the home page and change your search engine to MyHeritage’s Google Custom Search Engine (CSE), without alerting you before making that change.

recommendation

I recommended that MyHeritage try to rebuild trust by withdrawing Family Tree Builder 3.0 and release Family Tree Builder 3.1 without any hijacking code. MyHeritage has not followed that advice.

I am sorry to have to note that the installer for MyHeritage Family Tree Builder version 4 still changes your home page and search engine, and does so for both Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Apparently MyHeritage cares more about the short-term profits of this practice than the long-term damage to its reputation. That in turn suggests that the owners are not interested in repairing the damage to the MyHeritage brand, but looking to sell the company to a third party.

download and install

The download page for Family Tree Builder 4.0 still does not work properly. MyHeritage does not tell you so, but the download page demands that you enable scripting. That is a usability and security faux-pas.
The link section below has direct download links so you can download Family Tree Builder without having to enable scripting.

web installer

The download for Family Tree Builder 2.0 is almost 20 MB, The version 3.0 download is some 21 MB, and the download for version 4.0 is half an MB.

The version 4.0 download is one of those annoying web installers - it is not an installer for Family Tree Builder 4.0, but a downloader for the installer. Once you’ve made your installation choices, it will download the 25 MB standalone installer into a temporary directory and then start that installer. By the way, you have downloaded it, you can use the standalone directly. It shows the same dialogs, but it is not dependent on an Internet connection.

multilingual

Family Tree Builder is a multilingual application with a multilingual installer. The first dialog box it shows lets you pick a language from a drop-down list.

One criticism of MyHeritage Family Tree Builder 2.0 is that it claims to support English, but in fact merely supports Amglish. Family Tree Builder 3 and 4 do support both English and Amglish. A complaint that remains is that it still defaults to Amglish, even when you have Windows configured for English.
Another small complaint is that you need to choose your locale twice; first for the setup, and then later, on its first run, for the application itself.

hijacking recommended

The Family Tree Builder 4.0 setup still includes the misleading titled option Make MyHeritage.com my home page. It is no longer recommended, but it is still the default, and it still hijacks your search engine.

Family Tree Builder 4 setup

Well, actually it still is recommended; MyHeritage has merely moved the recommended bit to the default Standard installation option (despite the fact that there is nothing standard about changing homepages or default search engines when installing a desktop genealogy application).
You now need to make two choices to undo their aggressive default; you need to choose Custom installation before you can uncheck Make MyHeritage my home page.

I do not recommend this software, but I do strongly recommend that if you ever decide to try it, that you do make these two choices; opt for Custom installation and uncheck Make MyHeritage.com my home page.

You should also pay attention when you uninstall Family Tree Builder. While Make MyHeritage.com my home page is checked by default when installing Family Tree Builder, Remove MyHeritage.com home page is not checked by default when uninstalling Family Tree Builder.

FTB 4 Uninstall

multiple processes

When I installed Family Tree Builder 3 many months ago, I unchecked MyHeritage’s aggressive home page hijacking default, yet SpyBot Search & Destroy kept popping up warnings about attempts to change the registry key for both my home page and my search engine. Worse, every time I denied the change, the installer tried again.  In fact, the attempts to change my home page continued even after I had exited the installer!

uninstall

The explanation for that particular little mystery is that what may look like a single installer is actually a process that starts multiple other processes. Still, when it first happens you tend to doubt yourself. So I tried it again. I uninstalled FTB 3, and reset my homepage (tip: Firefox has a handy Restore to default button on the Main tab of the options dialog box), and then reinstalled FTB 2 followed by FTB 3. I made sure to uncheck the hijack option, yet the installer made the change anyway.

I even uninstalled FTB 3, and then ran Crap Cleaner to remove any debris it might have left behind. It turned out that FTB does not remove the registry entries for its SearchEngineQuery2.dll or the Complete Genealogy Reporter (which it relies on to create reports).

version 4

I did not experience this particular problem with the Family Tree Builder version 4 installer. The version 4 installer changes the home page in a way that the current version of SpyBot Search & Destroy does not find suspicious.

installation directory

FTB4 Default Installation Directory

The FTB installer defaults to installing FTB in C:\MyHeritage. That is wrong. FTB is an application program and should default to installing in Program Files like other application programs.

More important than installing the application in the right directory is saving documents in the proper location. Previous versions of Family Tree Builder stored your data in the application directory, where you might delete it together with the application. Version 4 stores your data in your documents directory, where it will be backed up together with the rest your documents.

FTB 4 uses My Documents\My Heritage

registration required

MyHeritage advertises Family Tree Builder as free software, but does require that you register for a MyHeritage account to activate the software.

FTB 4 Product Activation

If you have an MyHeritage account already, you can use that account to activate the software. If you activated a previous version, you can use the same account details, but you probably don’t have to; Family Tree Builder stores your registration details in the registry, and apparently never deletes it, not even upon uninstalling Family Tree Builder.

By the way, notice the promise that this programme is free and does not display any ads. Perhaps that is technically correct. However, as discussed below, it actually does start another another program to display an advert, and does display prompts with questionable defaults.

ZoneAlarm alert MyHeritage internet access

upgrade check phone home

Family Tree Builder defaults to checking for upgrades every time you start it, and does so without warning you beforehand. Remarkably, although this is already version 4, there is still no option to turn this off.

registry

Do not think that Family Tree Builder merely checks for updates, or merely reveals MyHeritage.com what your current IP address is. The installer stores you a whole bunch of information about you in the Windows registry. The details stored there are not just your name and email address, but include your gender, your birth year, your country, your ZIP code and what appear to be unique installation keys or account numbers.

The inability to turn it off this phone home feature ensures that Family Tree Builder is effectively spyware; every time you use the application, Family Tree Builder phones home to tell MyHeritage, thus allowing MyHeritage to profile your usage of the application.

uninstall

Family Tree Builder Uninstall web page

MyHeritage tracks your FTB usage until the very end. When you uninstall FamilyTree Builder, it opens the Family Tree Builder Uninstall page in your web browser. You can use that page to explain why you uninstalled it. The uninstaller includes your ftbKey and account number in the URL it opens.

annoyware

To make sure you are annoyed every time you start Family Tree Builder, it also always starts your browser to display a page-sized advertisement for a MyHeritage family site, an advertisement that MyHeritage calls your personal MyHeritage.com dashboard. Why MyHeritage calls this advertisement a dashboard is not clear, as it is just an advertisement, and not a dashboard at all.
Just to make sure, I even temporarily set Internet Explorer instead as my default browser, just in case there MyHeritage would display some ActiveX control on that page, but it remained a boring advert.

There seems to be no reason for displaying the advert in your browser instead of in Family Tree Builder itself, and apart from an ever higher annoyance-level, it makes no difference to you. Perhaps MyHeritage does it this way because it makes a difference to them; showing the advertisement in your default browsers allows them to claim that, technically, Family Tree Builder itself does not show the advert.

FTB Startup Advertisement

upload prompt

Just in case all the above is not enough to turn you of all MyHeritage products for all eternity already, there is more. Every time you open a project, Family Tree Builder prompts you to publish (upload) your data to MyHeritage.com.

Family Tree Builder Upload Prompt shown upon project open

This upload dialog prompt is shown whenever you open a project. Every time. Again and again. Notice that the data upload is presented as publishing and data backup, not as the data upload it is and that it does not mention the fees for a MyHeritage membership at all.

You must uncheck that box to prevent the upload from happening, and you must keep unchecking it. Every time you open the project, Family Tree Builder prompts you to upload your data and checked the box again.
If you ever forget to uncheck it (and inevitably you will), you will accidentally upload your data.

invasive

It is hard to believe just how invasive the Family Tree Builder installation is. The installer does not just install oeinstall.dll, SearchEngine2.dll, FTBCOM.ocx, and FTBCheckUpdates.exe, but also tries to configure your system to run all four of every time you start-up your system. Not merely every time you run Family Tree Builder, but every time you start up your system.

The FTB installer does so for no apparent reason, and without telling you about it. It does not tell you anything. It does not tell you what these files are, it does not tell you what these file do and it does not tell you why it wants to run these all these files at start-up.

On many systems, these install attempts will succeed, and these files will become become part of the unneeded start-up applications that slow down your the system.
If you decide to try to install Family Tree Builder, do use protection so you can block attempts to install start-up software. You can safely do so, even if you want use Family Tree Builder. These files do not need run at start-up.

The Complete Genealogy Reporter

Another thing the Family Tree Builder installer does not tell you is that it starts another installer. Family Tree Builder lacks genealogical reporting capabilities, and relies on The Complete Genealogy Reporter to provide these.

Family Tree Builder install an evaluation edition of The Complete Genealogy Reporter in a subdirectory of the Family Tree Builder directory. To be precise, Family Tree Builder version 4.0 install the Complete Genealogy Reporter version 2008.1.0.0.

MyHeritage Toolbar

A new MyHeritage thingy introduced together with MyHeritage Family Tree Builder version 4 is the Family Toolbar.

In a pleasant change from MyHeritage custom, this toolbar does not install by default. However, both the Family Tree Builder installer and the separate Family Toolbar installer default to hijacking your home page and search engine.

MyHeritage Internet Explorer hijacked Home Page

Internet Explorer with the MyHeritage toolbar and the hijacked home page. It may look like Google with MyHeritage branding, but a custom search engine is more than that; the customisation can affect the result results, even exclude competitors’s pages from the results! MyHeritage may or may not be doing such things, but the easy way to remove all doubts is to reset your search to the Google homepage.

browsers

The MyHeritage site does not state which browsers are supported. After trying a few installs, I got the impression that it is an add-on for Internet Explorer only, and does not work in any web browser, as it did not install in Firefox. Yet there is a family_toolbar.xpi file in the Family Toolbar directory.

Firefox defaults to blocking extensions from any site other than Mozilla add-ons. The MyHeritage download page for its Family Toolbar does not link back to the official Firefox add-on site, and when I searched for its Family Toolbar there, I could not find it. So it seems that MyHeritage has not submitted its Firefox add-on to Mozilla yet.

Softomate

MyHeritage created their toolbar using a toolbar creator, Softomate’s ToolbarStudio (TBS) version 4.1.0.61; The ToolBar Studio product page describes it thus:

With ToolbarStudio you can build your own Dynamic IE & Firefox Toolbars in minutes thanks to intuitive "What you see is What you Get" interface.

You may recognise the name Softomate as spyware, adware or a browser hijacker, and that has everything to do with Softomate’s less than admirable corporate history.

Firefox extension

I installed the Firefox extension manually and restarted Firefox, yet still did not see a toolbar. Family Toolbar 1.0.3 does show up in Firefox’s Add-on dialog box, but while the Internet Explorer toolbar has options, the Firefox toolbar has not.

MyHeritage Family Toolbar Firefox add-on

I guess MyHeritage focussed on Internet Explorer instead of web browsers (just as it did for its search engine), and never tested the Firefox toolbar.

The quality of the Internet Explorer toolbar does not matter, as you should upgrade to a web browser, but it is, well, yet another Softomate browser toolbar.

conclusion

The switch from a standalone installer for version 3 to a web installer for version 4 is not an improvement, but the real problem is how ill-behaved this installer is. The Family Tree Builder installer exhibits a disrespectful attitude towards you, your system, your preferences and your data.

The Family Tree Builder installer tries to hijack your home page and your search engine and attempts to install multiple start-up applications.

The demand to activate the free application by registering as a user of the MyHeritage.com website does not seem to be in your interest, but in MyHeritage’s interest.
Family Tree Builder phones home every time you start it, thus allowing MyHeritage to profile your usage. Family Tree Builder displays an advertisement every time you start it, and urges you to give away your family tree data to MyHeritage every time you open a project.
The option to upload your data is checked by default, so chances are you that you will forget to uncheck it one day and then accidentally upload your data. Oh, by the way, MyHeritage would like you to pay them for their privilege of having your data.

The browser hijacking and the invasive installation show little respect for you, your system or your preferences. Continually starting your browser to display its dashboard advertisement is not exactly well-behaved either.

The recommended settings of the installer and the greedy default option in the continual upload prompts of MyHeritage Family Tree Builder make it clear where MyHeritage’s priorities lie; those settings, prompt and default options are not good for you, they are good for MyHeritage.

The many installation and start-up issues alone are already more than enough reasons to strongly disrecommend MyHeist Family Tree Bandit.

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