A couple of years ago, I wrote a post about having made the rookie mistake of downloading Mozilla’s Firefox browser from a shady download site, because I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the results of my Google search to realize where I was. That was only Part A of my stupidity. Part B was not taking the time to read the fine print as I clicked through the download process. As a result, I became the not-so-proud possessor of a bundled extra: the infamous Babylon malware, the remnants of which, to this day, I have been unsuccessful in removing from my computer.
I was reminded of this embarrassment earlier this month when I had the opportunity to speak with Jeremiah Fowler, a spokesman for Kromtech Alliance Corp., whose flagship product is MacKeeper, a controversial Mac utility software suite. What makes it controversial is a history that has resulted in what even the MacKeeper folks acknowledge is a tarnished reputation. Fowler blames the tarnish on a number of factors: people confusing MacKeeper’s name with that of Mac Defender, a particularly insidious piece of Mac malware; the perception among some users that they were being “targeted” by MacKeeper’s ads; an unscrupulous competitor that allegedly launched an online campaign to denigrate MacKeeper; and some overly aggressive “affiliates” that were trying to scare users into buying the software.
It was Fowler’s mention of these affiliates that made me think of my Babylon experience—I had a hunch that MacKeeper might be doing the same sort of “bundled download” thing to sell its software. I told Fowler I wanted to get a better sense of who these affiliates are, and this was his response:
The affiliates are basically, that would be a partner network; there are affiliate networking sites, like Commission Junction, and different things like that. But what we did was, we did the reseller program, and also we did referrals, and we just paid them a commission off of that. And in the early days, we paid a pretty aggressive commission to these guys. It was a very valuable lesson for us, in the aspect of some of the things these guys were doing—we’re still, today, suspending affiliates for things like redirects. For example, they submit a landing page that we approve—our compliance department says, “Yes, this meets our guidelines. It’s not scary, you’re not tricking anyone.” And then these guys will sometimes figure out ways to redirect from other websites. So they scare you, kick you onto the approved landing page, and then try to [get you to] buy the software. And that’s something that we’re cracking down on—suspending those guys with a zero-tolerance policy, all the time. We’re constantly monitoring—we have to police them.
I still wasn’t sure whether my hunch was correct, so I addressed the question with Fowler directly. I told him that we’ve all been victims of a situation in which you’re trying to download a particular application, and you don’t read the fine print, and by clicking on “download” of what you think is that application, you’re also downloading another application without realizing it. I asked Fowler if that was the type of partnership he was talking about. After an uncomfortable pause, he said this:
We do have partnerships like that. If you look even at the top software guys ... they all do that bundling with partner companies. The affiliate is a little bit different. That’s a private person who has agreed to promote and sell your product, and then they collect a commission for every closed sale they have. That’s slightly different. We do the partner bundles, but once again, we have to make sure that it’s a reputable company that reflects our views, our brand, to make sure we’re not getting into any sort of partnership with just anyone. And that is what the compliance department really helps us do now—it’s that extra layer to make sure that everything we’re doing, we’re doing it together with one voice.
Fowler seemed to be skirting the issue, so I asked him point-blank: Is it fair to say that there are users out there who downloaded MacKeeper without realizing it, because of these bundling relationships? He said it “absolutely” is. But he blamed the users:
Many people—and that is a problem—they don’t read. They just click next, next, next—we’ve all been guilty of it—ourselves included. But in this day and age, you just have to read—it’s that simple. It’s popped up, everything’s there in black and white. So yeah, that is possible, but the uninstall process is super simple. We’ve even made YouTube tutorials about it ourselves, just to make sure that there’s no confusion.
I asked Fowler what his response would be to someone who says he simply shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to go through all the fine print, and that if he wants to download MacKeeper, he should just be able to go to MacKeeper’s website, download it there, and not have to worry about having to avoid downloading something he doesn’t realize he’s downloading. Why, I asked Fowler, put users through this? After another pause, he offered this response:
You know, the best way to really answer that is, fortunately or unfortunately, it’s just the nature of the business these days. With every software you’re downloading, that’s part of their business model—part of their revenue stream is to partner with other [software companies] for paid installs. The software you want has agreed to work with the software you may not want, and it just literally is the nature of the business. … It’s already so deeply embedded in that process that I don’t see how we could change it, as individual users. Only because the top—all of the software companies do it—it’s not just one. Nearly every application comes bundled with something.
Maybe, but certainly not every application comes bundled with an entirely different application that the user doesn’t realize he’s downloading. The way I look at it is simple: If you’re selling really good software, you shouldn’t have to resort to a revenue model that includes dependence on an arrangement in which “the software you want has agreed to work with the software you may not want.” If users feel they’re being tricked into downloading MacKeeper, and if that’s at least part of the reason why its reputation has been tarnished, then MacKeeper can blame no one for that but itself.
There’s more to the MacKeeper saga, including the story behind the company’s allegation that an unscrupulous competitor launched an online campaign to denigrate their product, and the company’s own advice on how to recover from a tarnished reputation. I’ll cover that in a forthcoming post.
A contributing writer on IT management and career topics with IT Business Edge since 2009, Don Tennant began his technology journalism career in 1990 in Hong Kong, where he served as editor of the Hong Kong edition of Computerworld. After returning to the U.S. in 2000, he became Editor in Chief of the U.S. edition of Computerworld, and later assumed the editorial directorship of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Don was presented with the 2007 Timothy White Award for Editorial Integrity by American Business Media, and he is a recipient of the Jesse H. Neal National Business Journalism Award for editorial excellence in news coverage. Follow him on Twitter @dontennant.