Do you know what your computer is up to? For many Web surfers and Webmasters alike, the answer is unfortunately 'no.' Along with so-called 'adware,' more insidious software installations such as 'spy ware' and 'badware' (or 'malware') may have infiltrated your pc the last time you downloaded 'free' software, or visited a less-than reputable Web site - and may now be running on your system without your knowledge...
Things change: this is the one constant in an ever-evolving universe, and this also applies to the galaxy of choices that many software developers face when deciding how to best compensate themselves for their product development and marketing efforts. While in the past, the 'feel good' shareware model provided a hopeful revenue stream for smaller software authors whose offerings may not have justified a full 'pay to play' model. After all, the ability to preview an often feature-limited release before making an actual purchase decision was a wise move for cautious or need-specific consumers, and dramatically broadened the market for the smaller vendors who hoped to be rewarded by satisfied and honorable users of their wares.
Nowadays, just as fewer surfers are willing to pay for porn, it seems that fewer still are willing to license their shareware - even though they continue to use it beyond the trial period, in violation of the software's terms and conditions of use; a situation that has led to the advent of alternative revenue streams such as the currently popular 'adware' model.
What is Adware?
Adware is simply software that is supported by displaying advertising as part of the software's interface. This sponsor support is what makes it 'free' for you, just as broadcast television, radio, and various other media - including most 'free' web sites - provide some incentive for you to view an advertiser's message. My version of the 'Opera' browser with its integrated banner ads easily comes to mind as one example, and if I were to use this software for more than occasional code testing, I would gladly pay for the current, full, non-banner ad displaying version.
I don't personally find this to be an 'objectionable' business model, realizing that the author's need to cover some of the costs of development, while mitigating the resource drain of policing unregistered shareware, and while encouraging consumers who prefer a less cluttered interface, and less intrusive surfing experience, to rightfully pay for the privilege.
The Problem with Adware
The problems begin to arise when you consider the advertiser's desire to maximize the pull of their "creative" and their campaign's effectiveness, and the steps that software developers and marketers are willing to take in order to facilitate these goals. To this end, many applications will install third party components, often without your knowledge (more on this later), that will gather comprehensive statistical, usage, and even personally identifiable information, and then report this data to a variety of parties, some of whom may elect to resell it to other marketers, who are now able to target you ever more effectively, thanks to their use of this type of 'spy ware.'
The privacy and security issues that these all-too common practices raise are cause for concern, especially since you may be an unwilling, or unknowing, participant. This brings me back to an earlier point: this type of software is usually detailed within the End User Licensing Agreement (EULA) that you are required to accept and be legally bound by before you can install almost any piece of software. Never heard of a EULA? It's the long scrolling box of gobbledygook that you have to agree to, even though you probably didn't read, before clicking on the 'NEXT' button to install your latest piece of software. As an example of the kind of thing that you're agreeing to, check out the following excerpt that was taken from the EULA of a piece of file trading freeware that I'm testing:
"EZula, Inc. is providing you a Service and a Software that, when downloaded on your computer system will notify you of offers and or information that may be of interest to you, by adding an overlay to text of Web sites you visit or by opening new browser windows with various offers and information. Upon the opening of any World Wide Web Page, the Software scans the Web Page, marks on top of those pages words and/or phrases with a yellow underlines and or highlights, for which there are associated Web sites, and creates active links to such sites. This highlighting and underlining are not part of the Web page you are on, but are overlays provided by the Service. When you click on the marked word or phrase, you will be directed to a third party Web site, and if the marked word or phrase is part of a pre-existing link, a pop-up display will ask you if you would like to go to the original link or to the third party Web site, or other promotions will be presented to you. Links to the associated third party Web sites are provided by the Service are clearly marked and are not provided by the Web site you are visiting. If you follow any link and wish to return to the site where you were, simply click the Back button. " You should also be aware that adware and spy ware is not limited to 'free' software downloads, and in fact is commonly incorporated into boxed 'pay' products, upgrades, and 'patch' downloads as well.
Beyond the unpleasant realities and questionable legalities of this form of 'data hijacking' that seeks to profit off of the hard work of others without compensating them for their efforts, and may indeed (in some cases) be considered 'theft of service,' you should consider that perhaps other adware and spyware applications may be even MORE intrusive than the one described above - like one that tosses a dialer at you whenever you visit a porn site that contains certain keywords, or what have you - and the myriad possibilities become truly frightening!
You should also be aware that adware and spy ware is not limited to 'free' software downloads, and in fact is commonly incorporated into boxed 'pay' products, upgrades, and 'patch' downloads as well. Beyond the obvious privacy and security threats these products pose, they also tend to be resource intensive, and can slow down your system, browser, and overall perceived Internet connection speed, especially as they report back to their servers, update their databases, and display new ads.
If you suspect that this might be an issue for you (especially if you download 'free' software), or for anyone who's curious enough to wonder if they might have one of these applications on their computer, check out Ad-aware, an XBiz 'Download Of The Week.' Despite the many precautions I take, Ad-aware found several questionable new applications on my laptop, and may find a few surprises on YOUR system too... ~ Stephen