Help! They’re Taking Over My Computer

When I boot up my computer these days, a host of brands vie for my attention. A Winamp icon appears automatically in my Windows system tray, a “Free AOL and Unlimited Internet” icon has rooted itself on my desktop, a Yahoo Companion bar is now grafted onto my Internet Explorer, and a Net2Phone icon, which shows up in my start menu, has integrated itself into my Microsoft Outlook (unsuccessfully, though, because it generates an error message whenever I start the program).

Did I ask for any of these icons, features, or functionalities? In each case, the answer is no. Does the appearance of these brands on my desktop every day foster in me a sense of connection with the brand? Again, the answer is no. In fact, what it fosters is a feeling of hostility.

In today’s world, it seems like brands are reaching out to touch my desktop more than ever, greedily leaving their marks on every nook and cranny. It’s not just about desktop icons anymore, it’s about functionality as companies insert their software — complete with features the user never wanted — onto people’s computers. Brand equals functionality equals brand. Although marketers may believe that becoming integral to the user experience is key, I contend that the strategy will backfire — if the user hasn’t asked for that degree of integration.

Earlier this week, I downloaded Yahoo’s new instant messenger application to check out the new, themed “IMVironments” backgrounds. I didn’t know what I was getting into. By the time the install was finished, I had Yahoo Messenger on my desktop and in my start menu, while Yahoo Companion had become an integral part of my Internet Explorer software. I’m not a newbie by any stretch, and I know that I didn’t ask for all of these things. I wasn’t given a choice. Yahoo took advantage of an opportunity.

The company’s “Essentials” effort, which launched this week, is another example of this predatory approach. In this case, Yahoo does let users know — to a certain extent — what they’re signing up for, but the depth of the “takeover” is surprising. After my colleague downloaded the package, he was dismayed to find that trying to email a document from his desktop took him to Yahoo Mail rather than to his default email client. The process for changing this back was so complex that the average computer user would likely have given up. Yahoo Essentials is slated to be preloaded onto Compaq Presario PCs and notebooks beginning next year.

For Yahoo, these aggressive tactics are not only annoying but genuinely harmful to its brand. After all, Yahoo has always been known as the brand for more experienced and savvy computer users. Its personalization and other features have always been very permission-based. Perhaps the change in corporate philosophy is deliberate, as Yahoo Chief Executive Terry Semel seeks to corral users — and brand them with a big Y! — in an effort to inch the company toward better financial performance.

Such behavior has always been consistent with AOL’s brand, but the company now seems to be taking things even further as its tries to grip consumers with every tentacle of its multimedia organism. Eager to try something new — and wooed by a colleague’s talk of improved performance — I recently downloaded the latest version of the Netscape browser. Subsequently, I ended up with a Winamp icon in my system tray, a new (I’d deleted all the others) AOL icon on my desktop, and Net2Phone deeply integrated into my Outlook email program. Every time I’d start up Outlook, I had to dismiss an error message — apparently some part of the software was missing and the “takeover” wasn’t working properly. That, of course, was even more annoying than the takeover itself.

The granddaddy of such marketing tactics is the Company of the Week, Microsoft. Its Windows XP operating system, officially launched with great fanfare yesterday, takes this approach to a new level. “Windows XP is something of a Trojan horse, actively working to lure users to other Microsoft products,” wrote personal technology columnist Walt Mossberg in The Wall Street Journal. “It’s as if you finally had a chance to buy a sleek, reliable new car after owning a series of lemons, only to find that the new car was rigged so that the manufacturer could track which garage you kept the car in, blare its ads at will through the radio, and steer you toward toll roads it owned.” The features are so intrusive and pervasive, Mossberg dedicated an entire column to them: “How to Avoid XP Sales Pitches.”

Does all this give me — and by extension the average consumer — warm, fuzzy feelings about Microsoft? Well, let’s just say I’ve got an appointment after work — to pick up my new Macintosh.

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