Tag Archives: Internet users

The Fate of New Acquisitions: Whither or Wither?

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I’m writing this on a Windows PC using a great piece of Microsoft software called Windows Live Writer. And that’s only part of the problem.

As you no doubt know, Microsoft have announced they bought Skype, the Internet telephony company, for $8.5 billion. You’ll have to look under a lot of stones to find someone who thinks this is a good deal for Microsoft. Skype made $20 million last year on revenue of $860 million, posting a net loss of $69 million because of interest expenses. In short, this is not a company about to fill Microsoft’s coffers with dosh.

Whenever a big company goes on a buying spree I reach for my gun and head for the hills. These things never end well. A few weeks back we heard about Cisco buying and then killing Flip, those great little pocket cameras so simple to use people actually use them. I used to keep a list of these acquisitions, because I naively used to think that a big company buying a smaller one was a happy ending. I’ve nearly always been proved wrong.

Yahoo bought a browser bookmarking service called delicious that they parked in a siding until eventually selling it, a few weeks back, to someone who actually seems to understand the product. In fact a fun game is to quiz Yahoo PR people about the state of their company’s lesser known products and count how many “I’ll have to get back to you on that one” responses. I’ll give you a head start: Ask about Konfabulator, a sort of desktop widgets program which was excellent, but has quietly withered on the Yahoo vine. The developer’s blog hasn’t been updated since 2007.

Yahoo are probably the most egregious offenders but everyone does it. Google boughtJaiku, a twitter-like service that was better than twitter, but have done precisely nothing with it. Nokia bought dopplr, a social networking service for people who travel, and have done precisely nothing with it. (Product blog hasn’t been updated since September 30 2009, two days after Nokia bought it.)

So why do it? Buying companies makes people money, somewhere in the chain. It disguises ineptitude, or it is what is called a defensive play: I’ll buy it so you can’t.

The Skype deal neatly illustrates Microsoft’s problem is a simple one: It lacks direction. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do so it creates a new brand, a new product, a new division—often out of an old one. The product I’m writing this on is part of (frankly the only good part of) the Windows Live array of products—whatever that is; I’ve never quite figured that part out. (Type live.com into your browser and something different seems to happen each time; now it’s a sort of stream of consciousness page that’s more of a stew of Microsoft’s various offerings. ) Windows Live Writer was part of a product Microsoft bought called Onfolio; it has survived, somehow, though few people seem to know about it outside a very narrow group of enthusiasts.

And here’s the rub. Microsoft has no idea what to do with all these products it spews out or inherits, so it forgets about them. Most of you know that Hotmail and Bing are Microsoft products. But how about Lync? Or Kin? Anyone remember Zune? And what is the difference between Windows Live and Windows Live Essentials, for example? Or Windows Messenger, Office Communicator, Windows Live Messenger and MSN Messenger? Or Sync Center, Live Mesh, SkyDrive, FolderShare and Live Sync?

No, I’m not sure either.

Go to Windowsmarketplace.com and you’ll be told that “Windows Marketplace has transitioned from an ecommerce site to a reference site.” Confused yet? Go togetpivot.com, the website of what was billed a year or so back as “the most ambitious thing to come out of Live Labs” and you’ll get directed to, er, bing.com. Live Labs itself was disbanded a few months later. Now old links to Live Labs go to bing.com, which was where those members of the team ended up that didn’t quit. Out of the 14 projects initiated by the lab counted on Wikipedia, all but five are dead. Of those, only a couple seemed to still have any life in them.

When a company diverts a link from one of its own press releases barely a year old to, effectively, nowhere, it’s a pretty good sign that’s where the vision has gone too. This was after all Microsoft’s big research team—at least the most exciting one (Microsoft spends about $9 billion per year on R&D, according to Jean-Louis Gassée, a French analyst.) Microsoft products seem to get lost in a labyrinth of confusing branding, branching and segmentation tunnels, confusing and demoralizing the user to the degree they throw up their hands and go buy a Mac.

Not I. I know about Microsoft products because I use them. A lot. And the more I usemy Mac the more impressed I am with parts of Windows 7.  The problems with the operating system could be fixed in an afternoon: Watch a couple of users try it out and then ask them what was missing. Build those bits into a new version, ditch the trash and you’re good to go. (Some clues: something like iPhoto but better than Photo Gallery for handling photos. Something like iMovie but not Movie Maker. Apple’s products all come pre-installed. Microsoft’s are a confusing, lengthy and intrusive download and reboot away. Oh, and something half way between Microsoft Word ($200 or thereabouts) and the freebie WordPad; Apple’s equivalent Pages costs $20. It’s not as good as Word, but it’s a 10th the price.)

So where is Skype going to fit into all this? Well, the problems start with Skype itself. Since eBay bought it in 2005 it has been something of an orphan, passed around with little idea of what its future might be. It wasn’t always thus. I drank the Kool-Aid back in 2005, and thought like others it was going to change the way we communicated and did business online. I joined the vision of a world where everyone from clairvoyants to business consultants (ok, that’s not such a wide swathe) would offer services over Skype. Audio, text, video, you name it.

That hasn’t happened. For most people it is just a way to avoid paying rip-off phone charges and do the odd video call. Everything else is marginal. The most recent Extra—the add-ons that were supposed to be part of this new Skype ecosystem–is dated January 2010 and that’s just an update on an old program. One guy I interviewed in 2005 had set up a network of 30,000 experts in 50 countries on a website called Jyve.com that was going to piggyback this new Skype-connected world. He’s nowhere to be found now and Jyve.com is an empty page.

eBay didn’t get it, of course, but that’s only part of the story. About a year ago I wrote a piece calling on Skype to realize that it was at heart the world’s most effective social network tool. I wrote:

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and [have] active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Skype sits on every computer (and most smartphones.) By definition all the people the user is connected to are people he wants to actually communicate with—rather than just ‘friending’ or ‘ ‘connecting to’. It’s an easier way to share stuff—photos, files etc–and it’s now pretty easy to set up groups and stuff (In Afghanistan we used it as a way to share security updates; people could see the information in real time or catch up on messages when they got online. In Singapore I use it to talk to my students via teams and the whole class.)

Unfortunately Skype may have read my piece, or they may not. Either way, they half went down this road by trying to throw in lots of things that people didn’t need—including an annoying Firefox extension that turned every number on a webpage into a phone number, including bank accounts. Now Skype is so big and clunky it crashes on my Android phone and my Windows computer.

But in a perfect world Skype works. It’s simple. For many people it’s a telephone. For others it’s a presence indicator: I’m online, I’m not. My computer is connected to the internet (green button showing) or there’s a problem with the connection (grey downer button showing). For some people it’s become a very useful way to organize teleconferences (though don’t talk to my colleagues on an Indonesia project about this; they spend hours trying to get a connection going.)

Skype wasn’t first but it worked better than others, which is why everyone has a Skype account, and why asking for someone’s Skype ID is almost as natural as telling asking for their email address.

But unfortunately I’m not sanguine about a Microsoft/Skype future. Either they integrate the technology behind it into their other smorgasbord of products, in which case you wonder why they didn’t develop the technology themselves, or they leave it as it is. Either way it’s not good: While analysts have focused on how Skype might fit into Microsoft’s non-PC products like Kinect and Xbox, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft won’t try to shoehorn Skype users into one of its misbegotten sub-brands, losing non-Windows users along the way.

Skype Messenger anyone? Live Skype? Skype Office? Skype Explorer? I shudder to think what will happen. I may be wrong—I’ve been plenty wrong about Skype before—but my fear is of a Skype that gets as clunky and overloaded as MSN Messenger, as bewildering as the Live family of products, as impossible to separate from other Microsoft products as Microsoft Word, as doomed as Outlook Express and anything from the Live Labs mob.

I do hope I’m wrong because of all the networks I have on my computer and cellphone, Skype is still the one I actually need. Skype: whither or wither?

Revolutions, Lynch Mobs and Anonymity

This is a copy of my weekly Loose Wire Column

By Jeremy Wagstaff

Tunisia in the midst of overthrowing a two-decade old regime. A new website that lets you answer and ask questions. And, in Thailand, a 16 year-old girl feels the full weight of the online public after being photographed using her cellphone after causing a deadly car crash.

OK, so what does a revolution, a boring sounding website and a lynch mob have in common?

The Internet has done something that perhaps we said we were ready for—and it turns out we’re not. It has not made us all members of a global village; it’s more like we’ve all been thrust into a very large room. This is great if the music’s good and the wine is flowing, or we’re all British and politely forming a line, but it’s hopeless if some of us get restless, or start pushing.

Chaos ensues.

There are several currents at work here. One is that as the Internet gets easier to use—and the reason why everyone uses Google and is on Facebook is because they’re so easy to use, let’s not forget—so the environment becomes collaborative. We want to share stuff, we want to contribute.

But there’s a counter-current at work too: as it gets easier to collaborate, so it gets easier to be combative. Any academic will tell you that if someone is anonymous—either because their identity is hidden, or because they’re in a big seething mass—then they behave differently to when they’re sipping tea with the vicar on a Sunday afternoon.

This is why you’ll see angry comments on even high-brow websites: These people are, for the most part, anonymous, or, they’re camouflaged. There’s some distance between them and the people they’re cussing. You don’t find people you know, for example, posting obscene messages on your Facebook wall. Or at least I hope you don’t.

Which is why a new website called Quora is such an interesting thing. The idea is simple: Someone posts a question and other members of the website post answers. Simple, And not particularly new. But somehow—so far—it works. The kinds of people who post answers seem to know what they’re talking about; indeed, more than a few times the person most likely to know the best answer answers. Like Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, who has answered questions on AOL, advice for entrepreneurs, and the chances of the Stanford Women’s soccer team of winning a national title.

Those who frequent Quora liken it to the early days of the Internet, when everyone was a bit more, well, laid back and helpful. I’ve yet to find a ‘doofus’ comment on Quora.

Of course there are other reasons why Quora is hot. Twitter may have helped us move information around more efficiently—and serendipitously—and Facebook has enabled us to share videos of our children and of strangers walking into fountains in malls while texting, but it’s left a hole in terms of finding a set of considered, serious answers to questions from people who aren’t anonymous—indeed, whose expertise is clearly annotated.

Going back to our big room thing, Facebook helps us peel off into a room with friends. LinkedIn with business contacts. Twitter with people we don’t necessarily know throwing out random tips and bits of gossip. Quora lets us wander into a room full of specialists and ask a question—or find a question that’s already been asked—and measure the quality of the answer by the qualifications of the person giving it.

This is good. But it may also be important. Tunisia wasn’t a Facebook revolution—they would have kept on fighting with or without Facebook—but clever use of Facebook, and blogs, and other Internet tools—helped focus their efforts and inspire them to keep going. And, perhaps most important, provide a source of independent and alternative information. In Tunisia, this worked well—fortuitously assisted by a clutch of WikiLeaks cables.

But it doesn’t always work this way. Tunisians already knew their situation was dire, and their government even more so. The Internet gave them access to information and organization that helped galvanize and convince them of the legitimacy of their cause.

But the Internet can just as easily give poor information and lead people astray. Take the Thai lynch mob—incensed by a photo that seemed to suggest  the teenager’s callous disregard for the tragedy she’d unleashed. Based on that photo alone Internet users launched a massive online hate campaign against her and her well-connected family.

They may have been right. But they had insufficient information to make that call. Instead of the Internet being a source of knowledge, a crowd-sourcing of information, it became a ramp for a stampede, an unruly mob fed by supposition, assumption and prejudice.

I don’t necessarily believe that something like Quora will help this. But I do believe there’s room for rooms in this online community we’ve created. We probably need to start thinking about this—not necessarily doing away with anonymity, but of finding ways to give greater credence to those who know what they’re talking about, and not get carried away by rumor, innuendo, or photos provided without context.

It might also help the foot soldiers of the next revolution, wherever that happens to be.

Skype’s New Dawn?

We talk about Facebook, twitter, MySpace and Friendster as the big social networks but we keep forgetting one that is far bigger than that: Skype. This from a Bloomberg piece on Skype’s vacillating fortunes:

Skype has soared in popularity since it started in 2003 and has about 548 million users worldwide—more than Facebook, MySpace and Twitter combined.

Pretty much everyone I know is on Skype—more so than Facebook—and their investment in it is greater: They had to figure out how to install software, set up a microphone, a webcam, create an account, and maybe even buy credit. More importantly, they can actually estimate its value to them, by counting the money it’s saved them, if they want.

We all know about eBay’s missteps with Skype over the past few years and the software could definitely do with a total overhaul. But now there are new faces involved—including Marc Andreessen, who knows a thing or two—I foresee huge opportunities ahead.

One is a route they’re clearly going to take: the enterprise. That makes sense, but it also means damping down Skype’s huge social reputation, since companies will tend to think of it as at best a frivolous time waster for its employees, at worst a security threat.

Still, it would make lots of sense to go that route, possibly creating a separate sub brand of Skype that built a wall between the existing network of users and the enterprise one.

But I think there’s a much bigger opportunity out there, one that was talked up back in 2005 but never left the ground. That was leveraging the free connectivity to allow an eco system of services to develop atop of it.

Consulting, translation, education, all that kind of thing.

This never really took off, but I think that may have had more to do with its execution, and the fact that the world wasn’t quite ready. Most people signed up to Skype for the free calls. They weren’t really interested in more than that.

And yet since then Facebook and other social networks have. (Taken off, I mean.) Doing, actually, pretty much the same thing. Setting up an account, adding your buddies to it, and then communicating.

But the potential of that network was never exploited. A few memory-hogging applications and a few desultory ads have been pretty much it.

Maybe now Skype can make the most of this. One is the eco system of services I mentioned, but there are also location-based opportunities, mobile opportunities, video opportunities.

If Skype dovetailed with Facebook, twitter and LinkedIn it could position itself at the heart of social media. After all, it’s probably the only application that most Internet users have installed, loaded and active on their computer. Unlike Facebook et al, Skype is there, right in the moment. It’s the ultimate presence app.

Indeed, it’s much more like an instant Rolodex (remember those?) than all the other networking services we use. If I want to contact someone the first place I check is Skype—if they’re online, what’s the point of contacting them any other way?

In other words, Skype offers a granularity that other social networking tools don’t: Not only is it comfortable with one to all (the status update message), it’s also comfortable with the one to several (add people to a chat or call), it’s also great at instantly connecting one on one. You can even reach people offline via it, if they have call forwarding enable, or you have their SMS details stored.

No other social network offers that.

Of course, Skype has some ways to go to do this. The interface needs a serious rethink: It looks so 2000s.

It needs to add—or reintroduce—lots of features, like individual invisibility (being invisible to some people and not others), to encourage those who either don’t have it running or have themselves permanently invisible, to keep it there in their system tray.

It needs to lower some of its walls to allow interoperability with other chat clients, like Google Talk, and with services like Facebook and LinkedIn. Indeed it should throw open all its doors, so I can look up my friends on the Skype app and communicate with them using any or all of those services. Skype is the app is the network.

Then we might be back to those heady days of 2004-2005 when Skype looked like it was not just going to be the end of ruinous IDD phone monopolies, but that it might herald a new era of networking.

Fake Photos-A Thing of the Past?

image
image from WSJ.com

You may have already heard about the Chinese antelope that weren’t: This, from WSJ’s Jane Spencer and Juliet Ye:

Earlier this week, Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, issued an unusual public apology for publishing a doctored photograph of Tibetan wildlife frolicking near a high-speed train.

The deception — uncovered by Chinese Internet users who sniffed out a Photoshop scam in the award-winning picture — has brought on a big debate about media ethics, China’s troubled relationship with Tibet, and how pregnant antelope react to noise.

The photographer and editor involved have since resigned. But this took two years to out; you look at the photo now and you just know that it’s not real. And this, of course, is not the first time photos have been doctored by news organisations that should know better (there’s Reutersgate, as it’s sometimes called, when Lebanese freelance photographer Adnan Hajj was caught allegedly duplicating flares, buildings and plumes of smoke for Reuters. More on photoshopping at Wikipedia). How can we avoid this?

One option is to be a bit more discerning about the pictures we see, whatever their provenance. Another is to turn to technology. Academics Jessica Fridrich, David Soukal and Jan Lukáš looked at

detection of a special type of digital forgery – the copy-move attack in which a part of the image is copied and pasted somewhere else in the image with the intent to cover an important image feature.

Their paper [PDF] investigated the problem of detecting the copy-move forgery and described what they called “an efficient and reliable detection method”. John Graham-Cumming, best known for his work on Bayesian spam filters, made it a reality with an algorithm that implements automatic detection of image alteration using copy/paste. (OK, he did it because he wanted to win money in a spot the ball competition, but it’s still good work.)

A guy called John Wiseman has made a few modifications to the code so it works faster, and has shown how it works well in detecting the alterations in Adnan’s photos:

image

image

The blue and red bits are where there are duplicated pixels. The code didn’t work very well on the Chinese antelope picture because that involves splicing two pictures together more than copy/move. But it’s worth a look.

Is this going to bring to an end Photoshopping? Probably not. But it might make us more skeptical, and if tools like this are readily available, more likely to run suspect photos through the wringer until we’re sure that what we see actually happened like that.

China Eats Crow Over Faked Photo Of Rare Antelope – WSJ.com

The Message Behind Instant Messaging

Be careful what you wish for. For nearly a decade I, and a lot of people like me, have been dreaming of the day when we could send an instant message to someone who wasn’t on the network as us. An instant messaging program is one that sits on your computer and allows you to send short text messages to other Internet users in real time — if they are online they see the message as soon as you’ve sent it. it’s faster than email because they get it straightaway, and it has the added bonus of letting you know whether the other person is at their computer and awake. Hence the name instant messaging. The big players, like Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL and Google all have their own programs and networks, with millions of users. The services are free but beam ads at users through the software.

Now here’s the rub: Because there are no open standards, most instant messenger users can only trade messages with others using the same program. So if I signed up with ICQ, say, I won’t be able to chat with Aunt Marge if she only signed up with Yahoo. It’s a bit like only being able to send emails to people who use the same email service as yourself. Or only to make phone calls to other people using the same operator.

I’m not going to get into who’s to blame for all this. For the past few years I’ve been using a program that lets me include all my chat accounts in one small program, so I can talk to anyone on any service without having to run four or five different chat programs. No ads and less clutter on my screen. Yes, I do feel slightly bad using software that leaches off other people’s work, but if those other people can’t solve my communication problems with Aunt Marge I had to find someone who could.

But as instant messaging has grown, the arguments against fencing users of each system in have grown weaker. Instant messaging is no longer the province of teenagers: it’s as popular in business now as it is in the home, and many a market deal from London to Seoul has been done over instant messenger. Not only that: and the rise of voice over internet services like Skype, which include instant text messaging features, and the introduction of video chat, mean the clamor for interoperability has become harder to ignore.

Hence the recent announcement that Yahoo and Microsoft have started a test run of allowing users of their services to swap messages. This is a big step forward, although it’s noticeable that AOL, by far the biggest player in all this with their ICQ and AIM services, aren’t yet joining the party. Still, it’s good news. But there’s a sneaking worry about it all this. Why has it taken them so long? And why now? In reality, hard commercial reasons lie behidn the decision. It’s not just about helping me send a message to Aunt Marge on another network. In the recent words of Niall Kennedy (thanks, BJ Gillette), program managers at Microsoft, it’s about gathering information about us as we chat and surf so that the companies can target better ads at us. Quite reasonable for them to want to do, I suppose, but one more reason for me to be a tad suspicious about what I say or do online. For now I’m sticking with my third party, ad-free, leaching program.

Synchronize Outlook with Others

Collaboration is the next big thing for software. Not that people aren’t trying, but I’ve not yet come across something that really solves the problem of people working together, needing to be able to see the same information etc. Here’s a new and quite simple offering that will synchronize your Outlook folders with other internet users:

OLFolderSync can synchronize any Microsoft Outlook folder with anyone else’s (except Drafts, Outbox, Sent Items and Deleted Items). The folders you allow to be synchronized will do so in the background by e-mail. You can easily synchronize Outlook folders through the internet without the need for both parties to be online at the same time.

If you have private data elements on Outlook you can exclude them from the synchronization process. It is also possible to synchronize only objects of a user defined category.

The German company that does this, Somebytes Software, suggests this would be useful for letting your

    • PA add and amend appointments, tasks or other Outlook objects while on the other side of the world.
    • Synchronize birthday dates with friends and family.
    • Work with a synchronized Outlook calendar, tasks and other documents across your team.
    • Synchronize Outlook data on your laptop with your desktop.
    • Check appointments with those of colleagues on the road.
    • Check club/association schedules with that of other members.
    • Facilitate schedules to team members.

All pretty useful stuff, though a little steep at $72 for a two person license. The web site is not easily navigable, but there seem to be other products that focus on synchronizing particular parts of Outlook, such as the Calendar, Tasks, or Contacts.

Banks To Customers: You Have To Pay For Phishing

Good article in Australia’s BRW Magazine about phishing and banks. It makes some important points, not least that banks are still trying to talk down the problem while at the same time passing costs and risk onto the customer:

Banks are desperate to assure their customers that internet banking is safe. But their actions are not comforting. Three of the five biggest banks have increased or introduced fees for online banking. In May, Commonwealth Bank of Australia linked the introduction of fees for retail customers directly to the $100-million expense of upgrading the online system to improve security and add 20 new services.

The problem with the online banking debate is that the banks, the fraud experts and the security companies contradict each other about the extent of the phishing problem, and whether it is growing or waning. One thing is certain: bank customers need to be increasingly wary and savvy about how they conduct their banking online or they will find costs soaring and, at worst, lose their savings.

The new fees for online banking are just one of the costs that customers are expected to bear for the convenience of banking online. Banks are also educating customers to buy increasingly complex and expensive software to protect their home and business computers. These include anti-virus and anti-spyware software and firewalls, products that experts say many customers, including small-business owners, cannot install and manage without expert help. The banks now say the online banking system is not secure without this protection.

Furthermore, there are signs that the banks are hardening their attitude to reimbursing customers who are defrauded by phishing e-mails. So far, the banks collectively have maintained a generous policy on reimbursing defrauded customers. According to the Australian Bankers Association, those reimbursements are estimated to have cost the banks $25 million.

Overseas, banks seem to have run out of patience. An AOL survey of 2052 internet users released in May this year found that 53% of customers who were defrauded in phishing scams in Britain say they were not compensated by their banks.

Good hard stuff. One stark quote comes from AlienCamel’s Sydney Low, who I know is very critical of how the banks are approaching the problem:

He says online banking is so insecure as to fail the “fit for purpose” test under section 71 of the Trade Practices Act 1974. He says: “Under consumer law, a product or service that is sold must be fit for the purpose it is sold for. Experts are saying that the current state of security is unsafe. The home PC is not designed as a secure terminal; an ATM is very secure. Now the banks are relying on mums and dads to create a secure device.”

It certainly seems extraordinary to me that banks have been so quick to shift customers online, where the savings are huge, and are now reversing engines and charging them. If the banks saved money in persuading users to do online transactions, why should some of those savings not be used to pay for better protection, and, where necessary, to fund compensation?

Rogue Dialers Still On The Rampage

Seems that those rogue dialers are still out there: This from the Manchester Evening News: £8m net swindle

UP TO 300 internet users a day are targeted by a swindle which cost British consumers about £8m in a year, says BT.

The company has received more than 80,000 complaints from computer users whose machines are linked to premium rate or international numbers without their consent.

Up to 2,000 people a day are now signing up for new BT software which guards against the internet dialler scam.

Victims of the con have seen their BT bills soar by an average £100, with some customers being stung for up to £1,000.

Here’s the software site. The blurb says:

Once downloaded, the software automatically launches everytime you start your computer. It monitors internet dial-up connections and alerts you when unauthorised users attempt to dial restricted numbers. When suspicious activity is noticed a display window will warn “You are attempting to dial a premium rate, international or non-approved number. If you do not want to proceed with this call hang up. If in any doubt you should unplug your modem and check your settings before attempting to redial”.

Snake Oil? Public Service? KMGI Responds

Yesterday I wrote about the odd press release from the Internet Security Foundation and the apparent conflict of interest between a foundation pointing out flaws in software (in this case, Windows) while at the same time promoting its own related software.

Today I received a response from the founder of the company that registered the site, Alex Konanykhin of KMGI. Konanykhin may be familiar to some readers as the Russian entrepreneur and former banker who fled his homeland and has since faced a long legal battle in the U.S. over extradition on embezzlement charges. Konanykhin subsequently set up KMGI to sell web advertising services and software. Earlier this year the National Republican Congressional Committee chose him as their New York Businessman of the Year.

Konanykhin, in response to my posting and a request for comment, says he erred in not making clear KMGI’s relationship with the foundation:

After reading your reaction to our news release in your blog posting, I realized that it was a mistake to limit our Internet Security Foundation site to the discussion of the password vulnerability and not include a page on what compelled me to establish the Foundation.

He says his motives for setting up the foundation were entirely motivated by realisation that users did not understand their passwords in Windows remained vulnerable even if they were concealed by asterisks:

We researched this issue further and found that 86% of Internet users believed that the passwords hidden behind the asterisks are securely protected. As we opined in our press release, this false perception may result in criminals and terrorists unlawfully obtaining passwords of unsuspecting Internet users, gaining access to bank records, and other private information such as bank accounts. So, I urged Microsoft to fix this security hole (even thought it would kill our revenues from sales of SeePassword), but Microsoft refused to do it.

I was surprised by Microsoft’s position which leaves hundreds of millions of Windows users at risk of identity theft. So, I felt compelled to fight on – and founded the Internet Security Foundation. I allocated a significant portion of our proceeds from sales of SeePassword to informing computer users about the grave but largely unknown risk they are facing. The press release you received was the first step of this campaign which, I hope, will minimize the risks to the Internet users.

After reading Konanykhin’s response to my earlier posting, I’m persuaded that he did not intend to mislead the public or conceal his company’s relationship to the foundation. I think this is more a case of someone inexperienced in the importance of ensuring all interests are plainly visible to the public. That said, I think Konanykhin needs to move quickly to implement his promise to add a page of explanation to the ISF homepage, something that has yet to happen at the time of writing.

In matters of Internet security and privacy, there are enough snake-oil salesmen, piles of skewed or self-serving ‘research’ and bad guys masquerading as good guys for users to be understandably suspicious about the motives of anyone raising alarm bells while simultaneously offering solutions.