Whither Adware?

Let me start by saying I don’t think adware is a bad thing. Definitions differ, but I’ve always used the word adware to mean ad-supported software, which includes things like AOL’s AIM and WeatherBug. As far as I’m concerned, so long as users understand they’re seeing ads in exchange for getting free software, that’s just fine. Transparency is key.

That said, the word adware has long some sinister connotations, and for good reason. Even some of the more upstanding of adware companies have somewhat shady pasts — pasts full of questionable distribution methods, associations with disreputable software providers, a lack of disclosure and much consumer ill-will. A history like that can be very hard to leave behind.

In the last few weeks, we’ve seen some developments that lead me to believe we’re seeing a sea change in the adware business.

Finally, Some Standards

The Web Analytics Association, which admittedly is more concerned with cookies than adware or spyware, is the latest to weigh in with its guidelines. Meanwhile, TRUSTe is ramping up to start its “Trusted Download” certification program, aimed at helping advertisers determine whether platforms meet its standard of notice and consent.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), too, is following the money and focusing on the advertisers. This week, it released a report on its efforts to talk with 18 advertisers whose messages had appeared on the network of 180systems, which the CDT accuses of engaging in unfair and deceptive practices. Naming advertisers like Netflix, eHarmony and ProFlowers, the organization noted that many of those contacted had no policies forbidding the association of their ads with harmful or nuisance adware. Those that did have such policies failed to enforce them. The organization says it plans to continue “outing” advertisers whose messages appear on questionable ad networks. This should be interesting.

Au Revoir, Claria

Meanwhile, the adware company so many love to hate, Claria (fka Gator) has announced its intention of leaving the space behind in the second quarter. The company apparently sees adware as too fraught with limitations — there’s only so much potential inventory and therefore only so much available revenue.

One limitation, no doubt, is the caution with which advertisers must proceed into the space. Claria’s been a staunch defender of the adware model, championing its behavioral targeting benefits, etc. But given the choice (and it apparently has the financial wherewithal and the relationships to make that choice) it’s now saying hasta la vista, baby. The company’s not dissing the adware model, but it just doesn’t look good when one of the format’s most prominent players to depart.

Musings on the New Adware

Claria doesn’t appear to be getting out of the downloadable software business at all, incidentally. Its “PersonalWeb” offering, upon which it plans to focus, requires users to accept a download in exchange for a personalized homepage. Claria will offer these homepages in association with prominent publishers, or so the company expects. Once the software’s downloaded, it’ll gather behavioral data about users and that data will be used to better target advertising on the publishers’ Web sites. Would that be considered adware? Or spyware? Or trackware?

Dozens of other applications offered by other companies, such as the Google and Yahoo toolbars, have the capability of doing the same. But will they? Or is this a line that shouldn’t be crossed? It’s almost being crossed now. After all, what’s the difference, really, between tracking user behavior across an ad network, such as Tacoda’s, and tracking them across the entire Web? After all, users are unlikely to know what sites are part of the network, so maybe Web-wide tracking is actually easier for users to understand.

The New Software

Maybe in the new Web 2.0 world of jazzy Web-based applications, the issue will simply evaporate. I’ve recently seen instant messaging and photo editing applications that run on a Web browser, no software download necessary. Both these things would be unthinkable just a few years ago.

So maybe software as we now know it will disappear to a significant extent. And if there’s no need to download software, there’d be no way to sneak tracking capabilities into otherwise useful applications. Alas, such an age is probably well in the future. Until then, stay tuned.

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