Frenzy Begins Over Cookie Alternative

An existing technology offering cookie-like functionality is gaining attention from publishers, marketers and others as a possible replacement for the ubiquitous, but potentially endangered, text files.

The technology, based on Macromedia’s Flash, is getting attention as awareness spreads of an apparent increase in user deletion of cookies. A JupiterResearch study recently found nearly 40 percent of Web users clear these text files from their machines on a regular basis. Because of the enormous consequences of cookie deletion for online marketing, analytics experts and ad technology vendors have since begun overtly addressing the potential of the “Flash cookie.”

The technology is based on a feature of Flash MX called “local shared objects” (SOs), which can easily be placed on a user’s machine by adding a piece of Javacript to a Web page. SOs are similar to cookies in concept and function. The main difference is Web users don’t know what SOs are, and are therefore unlikely to delete them. Additionally, commercial anti-spyware applications do not typically block these files, as they do cookies.

Among those discussing the potential of SOs to identify returning Web users is Eric Peterson, the JupiterResearch analyst behind the cookie deletion study.

“It’s feasible,” Peterson said of the technology. “Local shared objects [are] baked into the most current release of Flash MX. It provides, via Javascript, the ability to communicate between the Web application and the visitor’s [browser].”

In fact, the Flash cookie can store a much wider range of information in a user’s browser than the traditional cookie, according to John Quarto-vonTivadar, CTO of Future Now Inc. and co-chair of the Web Analytics Association’s technology committee.

“SO’s can store many orders of magnitude more information than a cookie can and are also not affected by browser settings but by the Flash player settings,” said Quarto-vonTivadar.

“Most people aren’t familiar with how to tweak their Flash browser, though I suspect that would change over time,” he added.

At least one ad technology firm is already testing marketing applications of the Flash cookie.

United Virtualities, a vendor of rich media technology, is today expected to introduce a product that employs SOs for user tracking purposes. The company’s platform is called PIE, which stands for Persistent Identification Element. For use of the platform, UV charges a .03 CPM.

“What we have done is made SOs very easy and practical to use,” said Mookie Tenembaum, the company’s chief executive. “What it does is make the cookie persistent. If they use the PIE system, it’s a Javascript tag they put on the page, then the cookies are never erased for purposes of identification.”

Tenembaum added, “Instead of cookies now you have a pie.”

Jupiter’s Peterson wouldn’t speculate about the value of such a product, which manages SOs that support ad campaigns on publisher and network sites. Neither would he explicitly endorse using SOs for this purpose, out of fear that widespread use could result in a consumer privacy backlash.

“For companies that can independently verify that cookie deletion is a problem, it’s certainly worth exploring,” said JupiterResearch’s Peterson. “I don’t go so far as to recommend using it, because it’s one of those great unknowns. As good as I feel pointing out this technology flaw, I would feel really bad if Macromedia [was compelled to withdraw the capability].”

Interestingly, SOs owe their existence in part to the cookie. Macromedia initially added them to Flash MX so developers of Flash movies and applications could identify and obtain data on returning users without cookies, which were awkward to integrate with Flash. That the technology could end up replacing the cookie did not seem likely at the time.

Macromedia appears somewhat wary about the use of SOs for tracking online behavior, particularly for marketing purposes. The company has issued a statement advising Web users on how to disable the automatic placement of SOs on their machines.

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