Microsoft to Buy Claria? updated July 12, 2005

Today’s New York Times reports Microsoft “in talks” to buy Claria. Leading commentators think it’s a bad idea (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). I agree.

I first heard this rumor several weeks back, but I laughed it off as too crazy to be taken seriously. What could Claria offer Microsoft? Most obvious is Claria’s large installed base — reportedly some 40-million PCs. But Claria’s installation practices are troubled — tricking users with ads that look like Windows dialog boxes, on kids sites, touting features Claria knows users don’t need (like clock-synchronizers already built into current versions of Windows). And in Claria’s oft-installed bundle with Kazaa, Claria’s long license lacks section headings, making it exceptionally hard for users to figure out what Claria does or to reasonably assess Claria’s terms. (These problems remain, seven months after I first reported them.) Microsoft wouldn’t want installations obtained through such poor practices.

Claria could also offer Microsoft substantial data about users’ surfing habits. A November 2003 eWeek article reported that Claria’s then-12.1 terabyte database was already the seventh largest in the world — bigger than Federal Express, and rivaling Amazon and Kmart. Claria recently told Release 1.0 its database is now 120 terabytes, the fifth-largest commercial Oracle database in the world. All very interesting, and perhaps troubling to those who worry about illicit use of such detailed data. But why would Microsoft invite this unnecessary privacy firestorm?

Claria could offer Microsoft its experience at advertisement targeting. But Claria’s targeting seems surprisingly simple: If a user goes to one car rental site, show an ad for another, whether in a pop-up, a delayed pop-under, or perhaps some subsequent banner ad placed via Claria’s new BehaviorLink program. Microsoft could design a similar system of its own in a matter of months, for far less than the $500 million it would reportedly cost to buy Claria.

Claria does have some interesting patents, a few making surprisingly broad claims as to software and advertisement delivery. But I’m not sure these patents are actually valid. If Microsoft wanted to implement client-side advertisement targeting, the more natural approach would be a design-around that didn’t infringe Claria’s design. Building it themselves avoids taint from Claria’s bad name, bad history, and bad installation practices.

Microsoft’s role as an operating system vendor and anti-spyware developer raises additional worries in buying Claria. Programs like Claria’s damage the Windows experience — bombarding users with annoying pop-ups, not to mention slowing boot time, adding complexity, and risking extra crashes. If Microsoft buys Claria, it would face practical difficulty in continuing to criticize, detect, and remove similar programs from others.

The Times says Microsoft’s Ballmer wants to be “more aggressive” in pursuing Google. But an aggressive strategy need not ignore business ethics — even if Google’s current distributors and partners are less than praiseworthy (1, 2). So I’m surprised that Ballmer reportedly personally approved negotiations with Claria. That said, others within Microsoft apparently oppose the acquisition, and negotiations are reportedly “on the verge” of breaking off. Cooler heads prevail, or so it seems.

It’s worth noting that no one from Microsoft or Claria has officially confirmed the negotiations. Techdirt and SiliconBeat claim this is all just a rumor. I have somewhat more faith in the Times’ reporting procedures; I’d like to think their editors wouldn’t run the story without confirmation from reasonable sources. Alex Eckelberry of Sunbelt offers what seems to me the most natural explanation: Microsoft leaked this story on purpose, as a “trial balloon” to test public response.

Microsoft AntiSpyware now recommends that users "ignore" Claria's presence on their PCs.Update (July 1): A post reports that Microsoft’s AntiSpyware Beta now recommends that users “ignore” Claria. To confirm this result, I downloaded Claria’s DashBar and Precision Time products, then installed MSAS, all on a fresh virtual PC that hadn’t previously run any of these programs. MSAS’s recommendation and default action was “Ignore.” (See screenshot at right.) In contrast, when last I ran MSAS on a PC with Claria software installed, MSAS recommended removing these same programs. This is exactly the kind of conflict of interest I worried about three paragraphs above — but I didn’t anticipate how quickly this problem would come into effect.

Update (July 8): Apparently Microsoft’s “Ignore” recommendation doesn’t reflect special treatment for Claria in anticipation of an acquisition. Instead, Microsoft recommends “Ignore” for a variety of dubious “adware” programs. Sunbelt reports that Microsoft downgraded Claria to “Ignore” on March 31 — far before acquisition talks reportedly began. A comment from Webroot’s Richard Stiennon claims that Microsoft recently recommended ignoring 180solutions, and Sunbelt adds that Microsoft also recommends ignoring WebHancer and Ezula. My subsequent testing indicates that there are plenty of other “Ignore” programs still to be uncovered. (More on this in the future.)

These odd recommendations demonstrate the misguidedness of Microsoft’s “Ignore” classification. I know of no PC technician who advises users to ignore infection with any of these programs, which give users extra ads without anything offering substantial in return. If Bill Gates sought to clean up a friend’s PC, I bet he’d want all these programs gone. Competing anti-spyware programs all recommend removal. Yet somehow Microsoft’s AntiSpyware app sees no problem.

Has Microsoft given in to vendors’ threats? Or forgotten how badly “adware” damages the Windows experience (ultimately encouraging users to switch to other platforms)? I’ve previously been impressed with Microsoft’s AntiSpyware offering; I’ve often used it and often recommended it to others. But screw-ups like this call Microsoft’s judgment into question. During this sensitive period, with Microsoft unwilling to deny the continued Claria acquisition rumors, Microsoft should be especially careful to put users’ interests first. Instead, Microsoft’s recommendations cater to the interests of the advertising industry. I’m not impressed.

Microsoft’s recently-published response to questions about Claria defends Microsoft’s treatment as the result of ordinary application of Microsoft’s usual criteria, without any special exceptiosn. Perhaps. But if this Microsoft’s criteria say to ignore a program known to be installed through fake-user interface ads on kids sites, showing a EULA only after installation, with a broken uninstaller, then Microsoft’s criteria leave a lot to be desired.

Update (July 12): ClickZ reports that Microsoft has ended acquisition talks with Claria.