Tag Archives: computer software

Updater Fever

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I sometimes wonder what software companies—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, they’re all the same—want from their customers.

I spend enough time with novice users to know how confusing using computer software can be. Especially online: It’s a scary world out there (they’re right to be scared) but these companies, which should know better, make it more so. By trying to hoodwink into using their products they are undermining users’ confidence in using computers in the first place. If they keep on doing this, expect more people to use computers less—and certainly to install less software, or experiment in any way online or off.

Take what just happened. I use Windows Live Writer to blog: it’s an excellent program, by far the best things Microsoft has done in years, and today it prompted me that an update was available. I duly clicked on the link to download the Writer beta installer:

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Only, of course, it wasn’t the installer but The Installer From Hell:

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Prechecked are six programs, none of which I have on my computer right now. There’s no single button to uncheck those boxes, and most novice users may not even know they can (note the confusing text above it: “Click each program name for details” and “Choose the programs you want to install”—nothing to explain to novices that these choices have already been made for you, and how to unchoose them.)

It’s not as if Microsoft is trying to sell us smack. This is free software. But it’s very damaging in ways only someone who spends time with real people can understand. Even when the software is installed for example, you get this last little twist of the Knife of Befuddlement:

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This might not seem like much, but if you’re an ordinary user, finding your home page all different and your search engine altered to something else can be as disorienting as coming home to find someone’s moved your furniture and the cooker is now in the bathroom. Well, not quite that much, but you get the idea.

Of course Microsoft’s not alone in this. Even Google’s been playing the game, and Yahoo! tries to bundle the toolbar in with pretty much every piece of software that’s ever been downloaded–which also alters the homepage, and default search engine, and probably moves the fridge around as well.

The problem is that the more these companies try to fool us, the easier it is for real scammers to scam us—because what they both do starts to look very similar.

Take this scam that I came across this morning. A splog (spam blog—a fake blog) had used some of my material so when I tried to access the page to find out why, I instead got this believable looking popup

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This without me doing anything other than clicking on a link to a blog. A graphic in the background appeared to be checking the computer for viruses, and of course this window is nigh on impossible to get rid of. Try clicking on the red cross and you get this:

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Try to get rid of that and you get this:

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And then this:

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It’s obviously a scam (it’s adware), but it’s darned hard to get rid of. And to the ordinary user (by which I mean someone who has a real life, and therefore doesn’t see this kind of thing as intrinsically interesting) there’s no real difference between the trickery perpetrated by these grammatically challenged scammers, and the likes of Microsoft et al, who try to inveigle their software and homepage/search engine preferences into your computer.

Either way, the ordinary user is eventually going to tire of the whole thing and say “enough!” and go out fishing or, if it’s that time of year, wassailing.

Let’s try to avoid that.

(And yes, the latest version Live Writer is good, though don’t use the spellchecker. Just a shame that it’s made by Microsoft.)

Playing the Software Pirates at Their Own Game

In the last post I prattled on about how Microsoft et al didn’t get it when it comes to dealing with piracy. So what should they do?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I’d like to see a more creative approach. After all, these pirates have an extraordinary delivery mechanism that is much more efficient than anything else I’ve seen. Why not try an experiment whereby a user who buys counterfeit software, either knowingly or unknowingly, has six months’ grace period in which to ‘activate’ a legitimate version? This could be done online by a key download and a credit card. No big software downloads — prohibitive in a country where Internet speeds are glacial — and no shipping (time-consuming, and often not possible from most suppliers). Instead, a downloaded widget would scour the program the user wants to ‘activate’, check its version and integrity (I’m not talking values here, I’m talking software) and install whatever patches are necessary (hopefully done without need for a full upload.) After that, the software is legit.

Software vendors would argue that this encourages piracy. I would argue: if the user can’t buy a legitimate version of your software in the country they live in, either online or offline, should they just not use your software? Or

Secondly, I would argue that this approach is not far removed from the shareware try-before-you-buy approach whereby users get to play with software for free for 30 days or so before buying. Of course, if they want to, the user could just not pay and continue using the software. But I suspect that they weren’t the kind of customer who was going to pay anyway, so you can hardly count them as lost business.

Lastly, it may be possible to use this approach to disrupt the economics of the pirate software network by embracing the shareware model. Instead of restricting distribution of your product, you flood the market with shareware versions of your software, allowing users a grace period in which to try out the software. If users can find trial copie of OneNote or PhotoShop or whatever free in every computer shop they visit, why would they bother buying a dodgy pirate copy that may or may not work? Sure, the free version needs paying for at some point, but that’s the point. The piracy market exists in part because people don’t have access to legitimate software — certainly not the range of legitimate software — in these places.

OK, that’s not always true. There will always be pirates, and there will always be people who buy from pirates, even if the legitimate software is available next door. But I suspect a lot of people who buy pirate software buy it to experiment, to try out software. Indeed, someone living in a place like Indonesia is likely to be familiar with many more software programs than someone living in a non-pirate-infested country. It’s not that these people want this software desperately, nor that they would buy it all full price if they had to. They buy it because the price is so low, they may as well buy it and try it. Do they keep it installed? In most cases, probably not. But the calculation for Microsoft et al should be: How many of these people would buy this software if, after trying it, they liked it?

Finding the answer to that question will give you an idea of the real losses Microsoft and co are incurring in lost business. It should also make them realise that not doing a decent job of making their software readily available in a place like Indonesia — at a price that reflects the purchasing power of the local consumer — is creating this highly efficient, but highly parasitical economy in pirated software. If they can reach their customers through that economy, or bypass it with widely available shareware versions of their programs — then they may stand a chance.

The Tilted Software Piracy Debate

Software piracy is a tricky topic, that requires some skepticism on the part of the reporter, though the media rarely show signs of that in their coverage. Here’s another example from last week’s Microsoft press conference in Indonesia, one of the prime culprits when it comes to counterfeit software:

JAKARTA (AFP) – Software piracy is costing the Indonesian economy billions of dollars each year and is stymieing the creation of a local information technology industry, a Microsoft representative said.

There is some truth to these statements, but it’s not really what Microsoft is interested in. First off, is it really the Indonesian economy that’s suffering because of piracy? One could argue the Indonesian economy is largely built on pirated software, as a kind of subsidy (like gasoline, which was until recently heavily subsidized.)

Secondly, when did Microsoft ever support the creation of a “local information technology industry”? That’s not their job — and I don’t blame them — but why hide behind this kind of argument? (Interestingly, there’s a lively Linux development community in Indonesia, but I’m not sure that’s what Microsoft is talking about here).

Some 87 percent of computer software on the market in Indonesia in 2005 was pirated, Microsoft Indonesia’s Irwan Tirtariyadi said citing a study from the Business Software Alliance, an organisation representing manufacturers.

That’s probably about right. It’s huge. It’s hard to find a company that doesn’t use pirated software. You can buy pretty much every program ever written, and I don’t know of a single person who uses a computer and who doesn’t buy pirated software. This is not to condone it, but I also only know of about half a dozen shops in a city of 12 million people which actually sell legal software. And forget buying online: Most companies won’t ship to Indonesia.

Lax law enforcement and widespread corruption contributed to Indonesia clocking in with the fifth highest rate of software counterfeiting in the world, he said, after Vietnam, Ukraine, China and Zimbabwe. “I’ve heard when police come to a shop (selling pirated software) it is closed. Basically information is leaking and this is an indication of the quality of law enforcement in action,” Tirtariyadi said.

This is part of the problem, it’s true. The malls are full of shops openly selling pirated software, often on the ground floor near the entrance, with policemen patrolling by. When a raid is planned, everyone knows about it, the shops quietly shut, cover their wares in tarpaulins and keep their heads down for a day or two. (Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the imminent raid is from the police or some Islamic group cracking down on the counterfeit DVD stores, which often sell software too.)

Tirtariyadi told a gathering of foreign reporters that if piracy dropped by just 10 percent, it would add 3.4 billion dollars to the economy, according to figures cited by the International Data Corporation.

Could someone please explain to me how that figure came about? To me it sounds suspiciously as if the argument is based on a false premise: That everyone who buys pirate software would pay full price for legitimate software if there was no alternative. Let me think about that: $3 for brand new software — often a collection of software — against $50–500 for the same thing, in a country where half the population earn less than $2 a day. I don’t think so.

Counterfeiting also inhibited an “inventive culture” and the development of a strong local information technology (IT) industry here, he said. “Some students like to create new software but three months later they find it’s pirated,” he said.

True, there is definitely an inhibiting factor. I wrote a year or so ago about a guy developing a machine translation program which wasn’t bad, but which required him to spend at least half his time developing anti-piracy features in the software. But I still think this is a disingenuous argument. Let’s face it: Microsoft (and Adobe, and all the other BSA big boys) are mainly interested in quashing piracy of their products and building up their market share; I don’t see much sign of Microsoft actually nurturing this “local IT industry”.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s largest economy, has less than 100 IT companies, whereas neighboring Singapore, with a far lower rate of piracy, has between 400 to 800 such companies, he added.

This is not a useful comparison. Singapore is a highly developed country and one of the world’s technology hub. Though, interestingly, it’s not really a locally creative industry, with the exception of a couple of big names.

All this makes me realise that Microsoft et al still don’t get it. Piracy is massive; they’re right. But you don’t deal with it by sponsoring misleading press conferences and well-telegraphed police raids.

Catching The Surfer in a Blink

Interesting news for web site designers, bloggers and PR types: Web users judge sites in the blink of an eye.  An article in Nature (thanks, BBC) quotes a study by Gitte Lindgaard of Carleton University in Ottawa in the journal Behaviour and Information Technology, that “the brain can make flash judgements almost as fast as the eye can take in the information”:

Lindgaard and her team presented volunteers with the briefest glimpses of web pages previously rated as being either easy on the eye or particularly jarring, and asked them to rate the websites on a sliding scale of visual appeal. Even though the images flashed up for just 50 milliseconds, roughly the duration of a single frame of standard television footage, their verdicts tallied well with judgements made after a longer period of scrutiny.

This surprised the researchers but is perhaps not that extraordinary. First off, people like to stick with an opinion once made, even if they’re wrong or would prefer to revise it — what’s called ‘cognitive bias’. As Nature quotes Lindgaard as saying, “It’s awfully scary stuff, but the tendency to jump to conclusions is far more widespread than we realize,” she says. Secondly, people will tend to regard the rest of the web site favourably if their initial response was favourable — the halo effect at work, as first impressions create an enduring bias. And of course, anyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink will know about all this.

So what does it mean for web sites and web designers?

Most comment focuses on the need for a good first impression. Nature quotes Marc Caudron of London web-design agency Pod1 as saying users will quickly jump back to Google if they don’t engage quickly: “You’ll get a list of sites, click the top one, and then either say ‘I’ve engaged’ and give it a few more seconds, or just go back to Google,” he says.

Other comment focuses on the ‘increasingly savvy nature of consumers’: Internet marketing and design expert Pedro Sostre told the E-Commerce Times that he believes consumers “are becoming more and more design-savvy every day — and they may not even know it.. Just by interacting with various catalogs and Web sites, they are becoming design critics.” He cites an interesting example: the recent redesign of the Sprint web site to yellow, the same color as that of power tool maker Dewalt. This, he says, made users think they confused because they associated yellow with power tools, not with electronic devices.

It is no doubt true that certain colors are associated with certain kinds of products (although yellow is also the dominant site of Symantec, which despite the imagery on their product boxes, sells computer software, not power tools). Or perhaps it is more subtle than that. As Australian associate professor of psychology Bill von Hippel, quoted by Australian ABC as saying about the report that “this may be because we have an affective or emotional system that [works] independently of our cognitive system”, the point really is that we learn new environments quite quickly. We quickly familiarise ourselves with new menus, new shower heads, new traffic systems, new faces at parties. We shouldn’t be that surprised we’ve now gotten used to the web. Color is part of it but only a small one.

Several interesting points emerge from this. Web site designers and PR types still think about web site design in terms of “design” — filling a page with appealing colors, images and movement. (Check out the plethora of web site design books in a bookshop if you don’t believe me). But in fact the web is moving in the other direction — just look at how blogs have emptied the page of clutter and, because they focus on speed and content, have really caught on. (Google has also helped spur this ‘white space’ momentum.) So while a lot of designers are going to draw the conclusion from this study that they need to pack a lot in to make those 50 milliseconds count, perhaps they should take a lesson from blogs and head the other way.

Another interesting implication is for Google and search engines. There has been a move towards search engines that include small thumbnails of the web page itself (I can’t actually recall off the top of my head which ones, let me get back to you on that), allowing the user to preview the site before actually clicking on it. These haven’t really caught on yet, but this research opens up all sorts of possibilities there. Cluttered websites are not going to look as good in such thumbnails as clean, simple ones. But not necessarily blog-like structures, because they will all end up looking the same. There’s definitely a business opportunity there somewhere.

Finally, there’s one more implication that I can think of from this: Why are people learning to form impressions so quickly? Is the experiment something that doesn’t reflect normal behaviour — glancing at a site and forming an impression — or is it exactly what we do? My guess is that it is, and I think that has to do with three things: firstly, we still regard browsing (in the sense of looking at websites without any specific goal in mind, or only some vague idea of what we’re looking for), for the most part, to be a frivolous activity, whether we’re at work or not. So we tend to move quickly from page to page, as if that somehow reduces the overall time we’re wasting.

Secondly, I think reading on a computer screen is still not a natural or pleasant experience for most people, so we tend to move more quickly from page to page, If our subconscious is telling us anything, it’s “move on, I don’t enjoy reading at a screen and I want you to move on.” The fact that our hands are poised over the keyboard and mouse make this kind of decision an easy one to make, possibly bypassing all our smarter, more intellectual responses to what we see. It’s like holding a tennis ball in the hand: It’s virtually impossible not to try to juggle it, throw it, bounce it or otherwise play with it.

Finally, there’s a contradiction between what lures us somewhere and what makes us stay. We move quickly through the web because the bright lights that attract us to a page don’t encourage us to stay. Call it the McDonald’s Effect: Bright lights, yellow and red color all welcome us, but don’t encourage us to linger or relax. Same with a lot of web pages. What would be interesting to see is research that explores whether users are draw to those same bright colors in web sites or more soothing colors, nice fonts, quiet layouts, which may not catch the eye but are likely to encourage the user to stay.

Bottom line: Interesting research, but the conclusions to be drawn are more subtle than

The Fate Of The Home Productivity Suite

I was asked by a PR firm on behalf of Corel to give my thoughts about office productiviy suites used in the home. I don’t always do that sort of thing, but I thought why not turn it into a blog posting, thereby avoiding any danger of being perceived as aiding and abetting a company I write about (hard to imagine that my ramblings might be seen as helpful, but you never know). Here, for what they’re worth (and I don’t think they’re worth very much) are my thoughts, post-long day at the office, post-chicken tikka and a Heineken, or, cough, two:

1. What is your perception of “the state of the nation” regarding Office Productivity packages used in the home?

Office [packages are] a waste of money for most homes, but often it, or something like it, comes packaged on laptops and desktops [anyway]. Most people use Outlook and Word, and a little Excel. Perhaps some PowerPoint to view something someone has sent them. All in all, a waste of software.

2. What would make an ideal home consumer productivity suite?

One that combined email, calendar and word processing and possibly a bit of finance. Outlook and Word are too much for most home users — Outlook Express is still a firm favorite, and many people see it as better than Outlook. But nowadays the home productivity suite needs to face new challenges from at least two quarters: synchronisation with other devices (phones, PDAs, other software) and to cope with the huge amount of digital imagery users have collected. It doesn’t mean the productivity suite needs to include image library and editing features, it just needs to fit neatly with them. This means that anyone taking a picture, sending an email/SMS/MMS, storing a contact on any device (PDA, iPod, smartphone) should be able to move that data all ways — onto their computer, onto another device, or back onto the device they originally created it on. It baffles users that they can’t do this kind of thing easily, or without buying some complex third party software.

Any ‘productivity’ software has to look beyond the platform [I meant desktop, or home, or office, or whatever the niche they’re aiming at is] they’re designing their productivity for, and think in terms of users’ productivity now being at least half the time mobile. No longer are people going to sit at their computers creating letters, invitations or other documents. They’re going to receive an email, reply to it and then want to save part of that email to their phone, whether it’s an image, a phone number or a map. That’s what productivity means to most people nowadays.

3. What could Corel improve compared to what we’ve done in the past?

I think i’ve answered this in 2. To add to this, RSS and blogging are terribly important, and the sooner these functions are included in existing software the better. it should be possible, for example, to create, organise and update blogs directly from WP/Word — what a waste of word processing power not to be able to do this (or edit webpages) easily. Browsers will soon incorporate RSS as standard, but RSS is actually the backend, not the front end, and I would expect to see a lot of interesting software that handles RSS in more creative ways than your average newsreader. Corel could be a part of that if they thought outside the perimeter a bit.

4. What areas are lacking in current office suites given to the home market (ie. Microsoft Office Student and Teacher Edition, Works, Microsoft Office — Standard, WordPerfect Office, WordPerfect Office Home Edition etc) that could be improved to make them better for that space.

See above. I don’t think any of these packages make much sense anymore, except for a limited audience. It’s old thinking: modern thinking would take into account that people just don’t work in front of the computer the same way they do in the office, so while I’m sure there’s some room for this kind of package, I would expect it to shrink further, and eventually be swept aside [unless it] links the software to
— Internet services more easily (say, for example, being able to save items of information in whatever format from the Internet or other programs; it’s no coincidence that Search is now a key industry, not just for the Internet but for one’s own files. This is good, but it’s a function of the failure of existing software to allow users to save and create information in a way that is easily retrievable. It’s not a new feature, it’s a BandAid to a bigger problem.)
— to other devices
— to programs that aren’t part of the package
etc etc.

Then I ran out of juice. But you get the idea. Mad ramblings, but some fodder in there. Thoughts very welcome, though not on my choice of food or beer.

Is Thinking Small The Future Of Software?

Is there a future for small, niche software?

Clay Shirky thinks so, based on his work at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he found that students were ignoring the idea of writing big, scaleable, software for the world (the ‘Web School’) they were developing small, very specific programs — ‘situated software’, as Clay calls it — which is ”designed for use by a specific social group, rather than for a generic set of ‘users’.”

Among the programs they wrote: one to describe and rate professors, one to coordinate group restaurant orders, another to coordinate group purchases of items where discounts could be obtained for bulk orders. Sounds parochial? You bet. That’s the idea.

“This, strangely, is a kind of progress, not because situated software will replace other kinds of applications, but because it mostly won’t. For all the value we get out of the current software ecosystem, it doesn’t include getting an application built for a handful of users to use for a few months. Now, though, I think we’re starting to see a new software niche, where communities get form-fit tools for very particular needs, tools that fail most previous test of design quality or success, but which nevertheless function well, because they are so well situated in the community that uses them.”

I don’t know enough to be able to say whether this is a broader trend, but I’d like to think it is. There’s a dozen things I wish my computer could do, from building chronologies to providing a ‘treemap’-style zoomworld of all the data I’ve collected over the years — which I’m sure very few other people would be interested in, but which would be of great use to a narrow few into that kind of thing. In the future, I’m sure, someone in my position would just sit down and code such programs myself in the evenings, maybe selling a few copies, maybe giving away a few.

Sadly I’m not smart enough to do that, but perhaps the future, as Clay suggests, will be a world full of people who program, rather than programmers, and the software ecosystem will be far, far more diverse than it is now. I hope so.

Mail: MSGTAG Replies

Good software always seems to be controversial. That’s not to say there’s not two sides to the debate: Those who think Plaxo is a scam to get you to give up your private data aren’t exactly right, but they may not be exactly wrong, either: time will tell whether it becomes a great service or an intrusive nag. Similarly, another product I’ve taken to, MSGTAG, has its critics, who say allowing folk to check whether their emails have been opened is an unacceptable invasion of privacy, not least because most folk who receive such ‘tagged’ emails don’t know their email program has just sent a message home advising the sender they’ve just opened an email. (See a recent email from an outraged user.) All this is true, but it doesn’t undermine the idea that in principle, it’s a great idea. We would all be a lot more productive — not to mention safe — if we knew the emails we were sending out to friends, colleagues, customer service departments, actually reached their intended recipient.

Anyway, for those of you who are interested in hearing MSGTAG’s side of the debate, here’s their recent response to the letter I mentioned above. Original complaints in purple. I’ve cut it back a bit.

The sender has no real right to know when and if I read his email, where will this go next…tracking how often the email is open, tracking to whom I on forward the email…the possibilities are endless and tantamount to spying and invasion of privacy.

The MSGTAG read receipt process is not designed to be invasive. We feel that it is more than reasonable for a person to know if and when their mail has been read by the intended recipients. There are many situations where this benefits both the sender and the recipient. If an email hasn’t been read before a critical time, a sender can know to contact the recipient to give them the information by another means.

Our view on the subject of mail notification is that at the moment email is an unbalanced exchange. The recipient gets to read the email, but the sender doesn’t get to know if they have. If you send something via a courier service, for example, if you refuse to sign for it, you can’t open it. If you do sign for it, the sender knows straight away.

With MSGTAG we are trying to make it as fair as possible. There are some services that offer to give out all sorts of information about the recipient, such as how long the email was viewed for, how many times, who it was forwarded to, etc. Though we know how to implement this type of functionality, we have chosen a different path of fixing what we see as a broken process, without making the cure worse than the disease by adding privacy-invading features. The negative “possibilities are endless” for all sorts of technologies: we ask that we are judged by what we do, not by what can be done.

MSGTAG tells the sender only the time a message was first opened. It does not provide the sender with the IP address or geographical location of their recipients, nor does it embed tags into attachments to track forwarding or printing behaviour.

However, I do appreciate that not all Internet users wish to receive MSGTAG tagged emails. We respect the business decisions of companies such as yours that wish to implement firewall or proxy technology to prevent MSGTAG tags from being triggered. Furthermore, we have implemented a system within MSGTAG Status that allows users to disable tagging for certain recipients who have asked not to be tagged.

MSGTAG also collects the recipient’s email address, email ID, IP address and email headers without the recipient’s authorisation or knowledge.

It is true that we collect the recipient’s email address and the email ID – this is provided to us by the sender of the email. As I pointed out in the previous paragraph, we don’t collect the recipient’s IP address and we don’t have access to the header information except for:

The subject line – this is used in the notification email so that users know which e-mail has been read, without it they would only know that one of their emails has been read, but they wouldn’t know which one.

The message ID generated by the sender’s e-mail client – this is a unique code attached to all emails by most email clients so that the clients can reliably tell e-mails apart. We use it for the same purpose.

The address the e-mail was sent to – we use this for the same reason as the subject line – so the user knows which e-mail the notification is about.

We also record when the tag was added, and when it was triggered so that we can tell the users when it was triggered, and what the elapsed time was. That is all that we collect from the email.

I agree that what we do with the small amount of information we collect is a serious privacy issue. That is why we have a privacy policy publicly posted on our site. There are several prominent links to it, including within the application itself. I refer to the following relevant section of our Privacy Policy:

“MSGTAG facility
The Software uses the MSGTAG service to determine whether an e-mail that has been tagged by the Software has been received by the intended recipient. In order to achieve this, MSGTAG must store the subject, message ID, message recipient, date sent, and MSGTAG account name of the sender for each e-mail tagged by the Software. If tagging is disabled in the application, MSGTAG does not store this information. MSGTAG will not sell, share or rent this information to any other parties.”

At present, there is only one person in our organisation who has access to the email addresses used in MSGTAG – a System Administrator. As General Manager of MSGTAG, I do not have access. Tech support staff must ask the system administrator for this information on a case by case basis, in order to address specific problems raised by our customers.

We publicly state what happens to email addresses collected. They are only valuable to spammers. They are not valuable to us, because we abide by our Privacy Policy, and cannot exploit them. It would be commercial suicide for us to misuse the email addresses stored on our servers. The integrity of our brand is more valuable than a list of email addresses. Besides, we hate spam with a passion.

“This is in direct contravention to the privacy act and the rules governing the collection of personally identifiable information.”

We also feel that MSGTAG’s email tracking service is not only an invasion of our privacy but is also an infringement of the “Information Access” and “Computer Equipment Access” laws as their service provides “back-flow” traffic, without the recipient’s knowledge or consent, directly from their computer software and hardware.”

We are unaware of any infringement as per your suggestions. Fisher Young Group takes its obligations and allegations of this nature extremely seriously. If you can provide us with more information about the specific areas of law that are at dispute, we will investigate your concerns thoroughly.

Matthew Miller

Interesting stuff. Let us know how you feel.

Mail: Strong Objections to MessageTag

Robyn Winter comments on my recent column about MessageTag:

I noticed, from checking on MSGTAG’s website that you recently did an article on MSGTAG’s email tracking service.

I recently received several email in which the sender utilised MSGTAG’s email tracking service. I was completely unaware that there was even any type of “read receipt” tracking until I had printed out the email and noticed the MSGTAG’s icon. This was because the icon and accompanying message was below the sender’s signature details.

Apart from the fact that our company has a policy NOT to allow read receipts, personally, I strongly object to MSGTAG’S email tracking service, as I have absolute right to control what does or does not leave my mailbox and computer.

The sender has no real right to know when and if I read his email, where will this go next…tracking how often the email is open, tracking to whom I on forward the email…the possibilities are endless and tantamount to spying and invasion of privacy.

MSGTAG also collects the recipients email address, email ID, IP address and email headers without the recipients authorisation or knowledge. This is in direct contravention to the privacy act and the rules governing the collection of personally identifiable information. We also feel that MSGTAG’s email tracking service is not only an invasion of our privacy but is also an infringement of the “Information Access” and “Computer Equipment Access” laws as their service provides “back-flow” traffic, without the recipient’s knowledge or consent, directly from their computer software and hardware.

Because of this activity, which for all intents and purposes (although stated to the contrary on the MSGTAG web site), the email tracking is a form of common spyware and we have therefore banned the use of MSGTAG services through our firewall and proxy services.

We will be taking every opportunity to make users aware of the infringement this product inherently has on privacy. We have contacted MSGTAG regarding their software and have not received any response to date, which to our mind, reflects on their business practices and ethic, as does their product.

Robyn Winter

I’ve passed this email along to MSGTAG for a response. Personally, while I can see some folk might have issues with this kind of tracking, I have been using it myself for some time and have very little negative feedback. Furthermore, after long discussions with them, I am willing to believe that:
– the folks at MSGTAG are not using the information they gather for traditional spyware purposes
– they have put safeguards in place to prevent it being used for spam purposes and
– it amounts to no more than a registered post service facility.

I’m ready to be convinced otherwise. Anyone else have any strong views? Write me.

News: Logitech io to get even smarter

  Fresh in from Logitech, news that the company’s AGM saw the first public preview of a hugely improved version of the software for the io pen, which I reviewed some months back.
 
This new version of the software, apparently, allows you to search all of the text you have previously written, not just the headers. It also allows you to change the format of documents on screen, for example by putting key sections in a different colour, or making the writing thicker. Last, this new version will include handwriting conversion software, to turn your notes into text. The new software is completely compatible with existing versions of the pen, so there’s no need to change the hardware. All you’ll need to do is download the new software once it is ready, which should be September.
 
I’ll keep you posted. I found the first version to be a very useful product. This sounds pretty exciting.

Column: search software

Loose Wire — Organize Me: Give us some software that really makes the information age meaningful

 
By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 3 April 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Every time I visit a computer shop I get nostalgic for the dotcom boom. In those days people with money were throwing their cash at people with ideas, however silly, with interesting results. Sure, most of the ideas were so dumb they never saw the harsh light of day — or the harsh light of a business model — but at least some new stuff was appearing.

As I gaze over the software shelves nowadays, empty but for yet another minor update of word processors or system utilities and (admittedly rather cool) games, I wonder: What happened to software innovation? Where are all those great promises of what we could do with our computer beyond using it as a glorified typewriter or calculator?

Sure, folks can now do some interesting stuff with video, pictures and music, but is that what the information revolution was all about? I’ve got a tonne of stuff on my computer — letters, novels, memos, Chairman Mao-type thoughts, mortgage calculations — but what good is it if it just sits there, hidden behind arcane file names I’ll never remember, even under threat of torture? I fear the information revolution — at least on a personal level — has come and gone.

This is all very disappointing. I’d love to see our data made accessible for all sorts of imaginative things that make use of the power of our PCs. A program, say, that goes through all your e-mails and tells you, based on some fancy algorithm, how many Christmas cards you should send this year and to whom. A program that looks at your finances and, while you’re shopping for furniture, works out whether you need a second mortgage and finds the best one for you.

OK, I’m getting ahead of myself here. That we still can find something more easily on the Internet — or in the attic — than we can on our computer is a depressing reminder of how far we have to go. Indeed, in 1999 a small California start-up called Enfish produced the most revolutionary piece of software I’d seen in years — a search program called Tracker that allowed you to search rapidly and easily through everything on your computer. It was magical in its simplicity, elegant in its design, and suddenly made having a hard disk full of all your stuff a sensible idea.

If you could check in a flash what and when you last wrote to Aunt Edith, all the previous litigious letters to your tenants, the last time your country declared war on another country, life really suddenly could get a lot easier. The index would update itself while you were asleep, so you didn’t have to do anything beyond installing it. You could save complex searches with simple names, so that you could exclude letters about Aunt Edith from nosy Cousin Connie, or include only those that referred to her pet poodle Alfie but not to Phoebe the cat. It was fab. And as with all things fab, it didn’t last (the software, not the cat).

Well, that’s not strictly true. Enfish is still going, doing its best to convince a sceptical public that this kind of thing is actually useful. But in the meantime their subsequent software has never approached the quality of Tracker, which sadly won’t work with Microsoft’s most recent version of Windows XP, and that effectively renders it useless. But at least Enfish is hanging in there: Version six of its software ($100 for the basic product, from www.enfish.com) is released this week and to me it’s the closest the company has got to its old Tracker.

I can only guess why such a great idea hasn’t caught on. There’s no great learning curve involved: Once you’ve explained to users that Enfish is essentially a Google search engine for your computer, there’s not much more to say. Sadly Enfish is not yet a household word. But Enfish does have competition, and perhaps they’ll be more lucky.

One is the Australian company 80-20 Software, which has this month released version 3.0 of its 80-20 Retriever software ($50 from www.80-20.com). While previous versions of 80-20 Retriever will do pretty much what Enfish does — index your documents, e-mails and whatnot, let you search quickly through them — only this version lets you view the documents without having to launch the program you created them in (say, launching Microsoft Word to view a Word document). This is a vital feature, since you can quickly scroll through documents retrieved by your search, all in one place.

In fact, Retriever does a fine job but falls down, in my view, by trying too hard to integrate itself into Outlook, Microsoft’s calendar, contact and e-mail behemoth. My advice to 80-20: You’re nearly there, but drop the Outlook interface and just be yourself. It should be a stand-alone program.

Both are worth trying (Enfish Find and 80-20 Retriever can be downloaded and used for a month free). For the heavy lifters, I’d recommend dtSearch Desktop. Although a pricey $200 from dtSearch (www.dtsearch.com), this is a super-fast, super-reliable program that tells you a lot about what’s on your computer. By launching your search from a viewable index of words, you can see how many misspelled words you are missing in normal searches. The interface isn’t particularly friendly, but it’s a workhorse for the serious searcher. Now if only it could help me on my Christmas-card list.