Tag Archives: software

We’re Not in the Business of Understanding our User

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A few years ago I wrote about sometimes your product is useful to people in ways you didn’t know—and that you’d be smart to recognise that and capitalize on itn (What Your Product Does You Might Not Know About, 2007).

One of the examples I cited was ZoneAlarm, a very popular firewall that was bought by Check Point. The point I made with their product was how useful the Windows system tray icon was in that it doubled as a network activity monitor. The logo, in short, would switch to a twin gauge when there was traffic. Really useful: it wasn’t directly related to the actual function of the firewall, but for most people that’s academic. If the firewall’s up and running and traffic is showing through it, everything must be good.

The dual-purpose icon was a confidence-boosting measure, a symbol that the purpose of the product—to keep the network safe—was actually being fulfilled.

Not any more. A message on the ZoneAlarm User Community forum indicates that as of March this year the icon will not double as a network monitor. In response to questions from users a moderator wrote:

Its not going to be fixed in fact its going to be removed from up comming [sic] ZA version 10
So this will be a non issue going forward.
ZoneAlarm is not in the buiness [sic] of showing internet activity.
Forum Moderator

So there you have it. A spellchecker-challenged moderator tells it as it is. Zone Alarm is now just another firewall, with nothing to differentiate it and nothing to offer the user who’s not sure whether everything is good in Internet-land. Somebody who didn’t understand the product and the user saved a few bucks by cutting the one feature that made a difference to the user.

Check Point hasn’t covered itself in glory, it has to be said. I reckon one can directly connect the fall in interest in their product with the purchase by Check Point of Zone Labs in December 2003 (for $200 million). Here’s what a graph of search volume looks like for zonealarm since the time of the purchase. Impressive, eh?

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Of course, this also has something to do with the introduction of Windows’ own firewall, which came out with XP SP2 in, er, 2004. So good timing for Zone Labs but not so great for Check Point.

Which is why they should have figured out that the one thing that separated Zone Alarm from other firewalls was the dual purpose icon. So yes, you are in the business of showing Internet activity. Or were.

(PS Another gripe: I tried the Pro version on trial and found that as soon as the trial was over, the firewall closed down. It didn’t revert to the free version; it just left my computer unprotected. “Your computer is unprotected,” it said. Thanks a bunch!)

PR That Doesn’t Bark, Or Barks Too Much

This is my weekly Loose Wire Service column, an edited version of which was recorded for my BBC World Service slot. Audio to follow.

There’s a moment in All The President’s Men that nails it.

Bob Woodward is telling his editors about when he’d called up the White House to confirm that Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate burglars, worked there as a consultant for Charles Colson, special counsel to President Nixon. “Then,” Woodward tells his editors, “the P.R. guy said the weirdest thing to me. (reading) ‘I am convinced that neither Mr. Colson nor anyone else at the White House had any knowledge of, or participation in, this deplorable incident at the Democratic National Committee.'”

Isn’t that what you’d expect him to say, one of the editors says. Absolutely, Woodward replies. So?

Woodward, the script says, has got something and he knows it. “I never asked them about Watergate,” he says. “I simply asked what were Hunt’s duties at the White House. [A beat.] They volunteered that he was innocent when nobody asked if he was guilty.”

This, to me, is not only great cinema but classic journalism. It’s a classic PR error, and you can see it all the time. Not always as dramatically, but it’s there if you notice it. To say or do something that reveals what your client really cares about—and how much they care about it.

I see it in breathless press releases that I never asked for. Read: We really, really need to get this information out. We’re desperate.  So you think I’m just a press release churning machine, is that it?

I see it in interviews when the media-trained exec grinds each answer back to the message bullet-points he’s got tattooed into his brain:

When did you start to think there was a problem with the building? When the people start falling out one side? We have always focused our synergistic approach to inbuilding personnel customer management by being people-centred, and while we regret the involuntary vertical defenestrations, we’re sure that until they exited the building extramurally they felt as empowered as we did about the efficiencies we implemented by removing what turned out to be vital structural features.

I see it in unsolicited pitches that offer interviews with CEOs who really should be busier than this—particularly ones that end with “when is your availability?” as if to say, if we give the impression you already said yes, maybe you might. So you think I’m stupid and gullible, is that it?

I see it in PR companies which are a little too eager to lend us technology columnists a gadget. Read: this is a product that isn’t good enough to sell on its own, so we’ve got a warehouse full of them to try to get fellas like you interested.

I see it in a cupboard full of gadgets that PR companies promised to come pick up after I finished reviewing them but never did. Read: even the client doesn’t really care any about this. And it certainly belies the talk about the review units being in hot demand.

This sounds like heaven, I agree, but the reality is that there is such a thing as too many gadgets. Especially ones which weren’t that good to start with.

Just this morning I saw it in a emailed response from a major software company in response to a very specific question I’d asked. The question was sort of addressed, but tagged onto it was pure PR-speak, addressing a bunch of imaginary questions I hadn’t asked, or even implied I was interested in. Lord knows how long they took to put this together. Actually I know—10 days, because that’s how long I had to wait.

As a journalist, when you get one of these responses your instinct is to remove clumps of hair from your own head, or, if already clump-free, those of family members or passers-by. But actually, buried in the robot speak are the nuggets.

The email in question talked of “a community effort…to understand and unravel this extremely complex issue.”  I’m not going to tell you what the complex issue is, but the words are a giveaway: “We couldn’t figure this one out ourselves so we had to turn to companies we’d have much preferred to have humiliated by getting there first.”

Subtext: We’re not actually as good at this as we thought, or our customers assume. We were out of our depth so we’re falling back on the old “we’re all in this together” trick. Works great if you’re at the bottom of the bucket and the crab above you looks like he’s about to make a break for it.

Buried in all that unrequested bilge are quite a few good story ideas. Nothing tells you a company’s weak spot than PR guff dreamed up in hope of putting journalists off the scent. Thanks, big software company, for pointing out your sensitive spots!

Of course, coupled with the “But I never asked them that” is the Sherlock Holmes’ dog that didn’t bark clue. In Conan Doyle’s short story Silver Blaze Holmes is summoned to investigate the disappearance of the eponymous racehorse. The less-than-impressed Scotland Yard detective asks Holmes: “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Detective: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”

In this case, of course, the dog didn’t bark because it recognised its owner, who turned out to be the guilty party. Whereas the Woodward Clue is about what PR folk put in that wasn’t asked for, the Holmes Clue is about what they leave out. In PRdom this can be requests that go unanswered, questions that are get very short answers while others get long ones, answers that skirt the question, or requested review units that somehow never arrive.

In the case of my big software company response, it’s the fact that they omitted to really answer the question I asked—and got very vague when I sought a timeline. It’s not rocket science to know when smoke is wafting in your direction.

So how should PR avoid these pitfalls? Well, the first rule is to answer the question, or tell the journalist you’re not answering it—and preferably why. Not answering it by pretending she didn’t ask it is going to infuriate a journalist and flag that there’s something there worth chasing.

But worse, don’t answer questions you weren’t asked. At least not directly. You can let it be known there’s more if they want it, but don’t forcefeed them. Journalists aren’t all Robert Redfords, but neither are they foie gras geese.

You can always tell if a journalist knows you’re not answering the question: they’ll nod a lot. Nodding a lot doesn’t mean “I’m agreeing with you, and I’m just desperate to hear more”, it’s “Why is this guy telling me stuff in the press release totally unrelated to what I asked? I wonder if he’d mind if I tore his hair out?” Nod, nod, nod. The nodding, of course, is a desperate attempt to speed up time so he can ask one more question and get to the pub before it shuts. Never works, but it’s a sort of reflex action in the face of too much barking, or not enough.

Driver Phishing

Maybe because it’s early in the morning, but I fell for this little scam pretty easily. I’m going to call it “driver phishing” because it has all the hallmarks of a phishing attack, although it’s probably legal.

I’m looking for the latest drivers for my Logitech webcam, so I type in Logitech QuickCam driver in Google.

An ad above the results looks promising: a website called LogitechDriversCenter.com:

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So I click on it.

It takes me to a site with a Logitech logo, lots of shareware and PC Magazine stars, Logitech product photos and three options for getting the right driver:

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DriverRobot, the first one, sounds promising. Maybe, I think, Logitech have consolidated all their driver downloads into one program. Good idea, given I’ve got quite a few of their products hanging around the computer. So I download and install it.

Looks OK so far. A window appears prompting you to start scanning your computer. Lots of green arrows and ticks to reassure you:

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Once the scan is done you’re told how many drivers you need, with another green arrowed button indicating what you should do to get them (“Get drivers”):

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(I should have been forewarned at this point. Plenty of warnings, but one key one: None of the drivers it suggested were Logitech ones. Certainly nothing to help me with my webcam.)

Click on that and you’re told you’ve got to “Register” which is “quick and easy”.

Notice there’s no other option, unless you can see the little Close Window X in the top right corner of the window:

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Try to click on the other radio button (“Allow 11 drivers to remain out of date (not recommended). Critical updates for your computer will not be installed. Your computer may be vulnerable to crashes, performance problems, freezes and “blue screens.””) and then click Continue and the window disappears, but nothing else. It’s like those supermarkets where you can’t get out unless you buy something.

Click on the Continue button and your browser fires up with page requesting your Name and Email to register:

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Notice all the seals, locks, starts and 100% guaranteed things going on. Reassuring, eh? Except there’s no link on the page, nothing for the casual user (or a slow-witted guy who got up too early) to click on to get more information.

So the slow-witted guy enters his name and email address, thinking that’s going to get him registered. Of course not. Instead he’s asked to shell out cash–$30—for the software:

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Once again, no links to explain who is behind this, or what other options there may be.

As far as the casual user knows, this is either a Logitech product or one approved by them.

But it’s not. The software comes from a company called Blitware. The Complaints Board website has several complaints about the company and software:

The Driver Robot software does not work and the company tricks consumers in to believing that it is freeware. Am trying to get a refund of my purchase price now.

And worse: For some of those who do buy the software and follow its driver updates, it only makes things worse:

My computer completely crashed after using driver robot when it installed a generic mouse driver every time I touched my mouse I had a blue screen crash with a driver check sum error … It has also installed an elan touch tablet driver which is now in the toolbar. I dont have this device on my machine. This software is completely useless and will be going for a refund.

Others found they had no way of getting support:

Useless garbage–no contact info given. I attempted use and could see it doing nothing. What now, am I really out $39.90?

So who is Blitware? Its website says

Blitware (or Blitware Technology Inc., to be precise) is a small Canadian software vendor from Victoria, BC, Canada. Blitware’s mission is to take great software products to market and bend over backwards for our partners who help promote them.

(Notice how the company doesn’t say it’s a developer, and stresses the marketing, rather than the consumer, in its literature. That should probably tell you all you need to know, if you hadn’t gotten up too early.)

There is an encouraging link on the home page inviting you to click for Support (“Need support for a Blitware product? Our expert technical support staff is standing by to help you”) —

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— but far from take you to that helpful support staff, the link takes you to a Frequently Asked Questions page, and only at the bottom to a link for contacting technical support.

That in turn takes you to a link demanding you register at Blitware first, and then, when that is done, to a page for you to file your question.

Do that and you’re told:

We will reply to this message soon! You will receive an email when we do.

OK, so, what’s wrong with all this, and why call it phishing?

Well, phishing is the art of using social engineering tricks to lull a victim into thinking s/he is interacting with a legitimate site/product and to get him/her into coughing up passwords or cash.

Usually with banks, or emails, or accounts etc.

To me this Driver Robot is no different.

From the Google search—where a website with the word Logitech in it—everything is designed to make you think you’re dealing, if not with Logitech, then at least with a company/product that Logitech has endorsed.

The website’s title—the bit that appears in the browser’s top-most bar indicates it’s a Logitech site:

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Even the website’s favicon—the little log before the web address—is Logitech’s:

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To me this is no different to a scammer putting “Citibank” or “Paypal” somewhere in a web address to fool the user into thinking they’re dealing with someone kosher.

Anything the tricks the user, either into thinking they’re dealing with the real thing, or thinking they have no other option, is, in my view, a scam.

That the software doesn’t seem to work—it found no Logitech drivers or updates, and seems to crash computers—only makes matters worse.

I’m going to find out what Logitech make of their logos and name being used for dodgy purposes.

(more on Driver Phishing here.)

Still Sneaky After All These Years

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I still retain the capacity to get bummed out by the intrusiveness of software from companies you’d think would be trying to make us happy these days, not make us madder.

My friend Scotty, the Winpatrol watchdog, has been doing a great job of keeping an eye on these things. The culprits either try to change file associations or add a program to the boot sequence, without telling us. Some recent examples:

Windows Live Mail, without me doing anything at all, suddenly tried to wrest control of my emails by grabbing the extension EML from Thunderbird:

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This was unconnected to anything I was doing, or had asked. I didn’t even know I still had Live Mail installed. Shocking. Imagine if I hadn’t been asking Scotty to keep guard? Or that I didn’t have much of a clue what I was doing? (OK, don’t answer that one.)

(Just out of interest, launching Outlook Express will do the same thing:)

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Still, I suppose the Microsoft defence is that everyone else is doing it. I installed WordPerfect Office the other day and found that, without asking, it tried to take over handling DOC files without asking first. Luckily, Scotty woofed a warning:

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No wonder users are baffled about what is going on with their computer and end up heading off to the Apple Store for some TLC. Software companies have got to stop doing this kind of thing. (And no, I’m not saying that Apple are any better at this. It’s just they reduce the choices so people feel their computers behave more predictably. This, after all, is what people yearn for.)

Likewise with starting programs. Once again it’s about predictability: If software starts loading without the user being asked first, then a) the computer is going to slow down and b) the user will have a bunch of new icons and activities to figure out. A couple of examples:

Windows Live forces its Family Safety Client to boot without asking:

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as does eFax, the online faxing service:

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These companies need to stop this. They need to stop it now. Consumer confidence is low, but so is user confidence. I am inundated with letters from readers of the columns who talk about their bafflement and sense of alienation from their computer. (Meanwhile, I read love stories from those who switch to Macs.) The point is this: Not that people believe Macs are better computers—although they may well be—but they are simpler to use, more predictable, more understandable, more, well, user-friendly.

What’s user-friendly about changing the settings on someone’s computer without asking them? Would a company try that with someone’s car, fridge, or dishwasher?

Serial Number Killers

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I’ve been mulling the issue of registering and activating software of late, and while I feel users generally are less averse to the process of having to enter a serial number or activating a program before they can use it than before, I think there’s still a lot of frustration out there.

And I know from clients that it’s a balancing act between upsetting users and not encouraging those who seem unable or unwilling to pay to have a free ride.

It seems to me to boil down to this: Users who have paid for software expect to be able to use it out of the box. It would be like taking a bread maker home and having to call the manufacturer before you can start making bread.

What’s more, customers shouldn’t have to cope with silly technical problems that aren’t their fault. The example above is from my efforts to test Adobe’s latest version of Acrobat. The initial installation failed, and now it’s blocking the legitimate serial number it previously accepted—on the same machine. I still haven’t found a way around this problem, so my ardour for things Adobe has diminished a little.

The problem is that it’s fixable. I can yell at Adobe and hopefully I’ll get another serial number. But that’s not going to happen now—when I need it. It’s going to happen in 24, 48, 72 hours’ time. By which time I may feel like a mug for buying the software in the first place.

Here’s a possible solution: An automated temporary serial number that will work until a proper serial number can be available. This could be delivered online—say, a bot on IM, where you enter the serial number that’s not working and get issued a temporary one that does. Or a product could come with two serial numbers, one a permanent one and one a backup one.

Once customer service comes online and fixes the problem, the emergency serial number can be deactivated. As it lasts only for, say, 48 hours it would be relatively worthless to pirates. It will also push software companies to ensure they get back to frustrated customers within the allotted time or risk further wrath.

Either way, software manufacturers have got to make it easy for users to get around the limitations, and frailties, of the registration and activation process. Users should never be left in the lurch for even an hour if they’re a legitimate customer. It’s up to the software companies to address this issue. Perhaps something like this already exists, but if not I think an emergency serial number might be an answer.

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.)

How to Manage Your Nokia Phone

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Nokia has finally woken up to the potential of connecting its phones to a computer. Although you could do it before, Nokia has launched a new version of its PC Suite, that makes some great strides in allowing you to use the computer to manage and monitor your cellphone.

The vision is a simple, and yet elusive, one. We work on our computers when we’re stationary. And on our phone when we’re mobile. But as far as we’re concerned we’re still doing the same thing: working. We can synchronize our data between those two devices, but operating both in real time is more problematic: there are tools to allow us to access our computer data from a phone, but sending and receiving SMS messages, for example, is still considered a phone activity, not a computer one.

It’s a technical barrier, not a lifestyle one. And here’s how to bridge it.

Your Nokia phone should have come with a cable. You’ll need that, and you’ll need the latest version of the PC Suite (this works only with Windows, unfortunately), which you can get from here  (http://is.gd/2aiL). 

Install the software, and then follow the instructions for connecting phone to computer.

When the two devices are connected, a list of options will appear on your phone. Select PC Suite.

Click on the Click here to connect a phone and follow the instructions:

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The new bit with this version of the software is the smoother and more thorough handling of contacts and SMS messages. To try this out, click on the envelope icon and you’ll see a list of messages from your phone:

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This effectively gives you full access to all the messages and contacts on your phone, and also allows you to send and reply to messages straight from your phone, but without the fiddly screen.

Clicking on the Contacts button on the left hand bottom corner of the program window lets you edit, add, and delete entries from your phone:

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This is not perfect. I noticed I couldn’t always delete text from a field, and don’t expect the software to automatically notify you of incoming messages.

But it’s a start, and another good reason to buy Nokia phones.

Another tip: If you’ve got Bluetooth on your computer, configure your PC and phone so they talk to each other. That way you don’t need to carry the cable around with you.

This is the closest I’ve seen to making the phone an appendage to your computer, where it seamlessly integrates in terms of data and functionality. Some steps to go, but kudos to Nokia for pushing the envelope. Hopefully soon enough we won’t notice or care what medium—SMS, email, chat–we’re using, because it will all be one simple interface. That day just came closer.

©Loose Wire Pte Ltd.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a Singapore-based commentator on technology. His guide to using computers, Loose Wire, is available in bookshops or on Amazon. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

The Pitfalls of Facebook

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Facebook just grew up and gave some of its users a shock they probably deserve. You might even have been one of them.

You may have received a message from a friend already on Facebook; something that doesn’t sound like them, but hey, they might have been out partying when they wrote it:

“have you heard about that blog that was about you? apparently it’s pretty bad,” it will say. “I think you and everyone should read it..” And then there’s a link.

Click on the link and you’d be taken—if you’re unlucky, and haven’t upgraded your browser recently–to a website that looks a lot like a Facebook login page.

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If you’re wary, you won’t have gotten this far, because your browser—assuming you’re using one of the more recent versions–will have flashed a warning that you’re trying to visit a dodgy site. That’s because the site itself is not Facebook.com, but Facelibook.com—a website hosted in China.

What will happen then, if you don’t notice those extra two letters hiding in the website name and enter your name and password, is that you’ll be “phished”—in other words, your password and username will now be known by someone else. Someone else who won’t necessarily be a pal.

Phishing has been around for a few years, and sadly we’re still falling victim to it. It’s simple really: A bad guy uses whatever tricks he can—technology, our gullibility, simply looking over our shoulders—to steal our passwords, and then uses that access to either empty our bank accounts or pretend to be us.

In this case, they use the Facebook account to send more messages to other people. You see, the thing about Facebook is that it’s a trusted area. All the people we get messages from are people we trust, people we know, so what better way to lure people into a trap than to send messages so they look as if they’re from someone we know?

Giving someone access to your Facebook account is not a good thing, of course. They can not only send out creepy messages that compromise your friends (and endanger your friendships) but they’ll also have access to whatever information you’ve stored in your Facebook account: your previous jobs, your interests and your address for starters. That’s enough for them to steal your identity.

But that’s not all the Facebook thing does. I’m not quite clear whether these two attacks are the same, but they may well be: The hijacked accounts, I’m told, will now send out a slightly different message this time, along the lines of “You’ve been caught on hidden cam, yo” (“cam” is short for camera, for those of you not up with the lingo. “Yo” is a term of endearment reserved for the hip and would-be hip).

Click on this particular link and worse things happen. You’re told your version of Flash player is out of date—a normal enough message, as Flash players are programs used to play animated content in your browser—and then you’re instructed to download and install an update, a piece of software called codecsetup.exe. Agree and you’ll be treated to a video of a laughing clown as, behind the scenes, a piece of malware—or software with bad intentions—is downloaded to your computer.

You won’t necessarily be any the wiser. Your computer will continue to function. Only it will also have been infected with a virus, which could do any number of things, from reporting back home all your passwords, to turning your computer into a zombie in a botnet. (Zombies are computers that can be controlled remotely, and a botnet is network of hundreds, maybe thousands, of compromised computers which can be used to send spam or launch other computer-borne attacks.)

None of this is good for you. If you’re infected by this kind of virus, you need to disinfect, and that may require a professional. If you think you might be infected, first run a check on your computer with something like Housecall from TrendMicro (housecall.trendmicro.com).

Earlier in August Facebook itself reported that a small percentage of users were infected by this virus; the trouble is that a small percentage of all the millions of Facebookers is still hundreds of users. As Avi Dardik of antivirus company Yoggie Security Systems puts it, users are lulled into making a false step through a gradual series of moves: “Notice how sophisticated this series is–the user is essentially drugged to sleep in several steps,” he says.

The simple lesson from this is that Facebook—and other social networking sites—are becoming popular enough to entice the bad guys into coming up with ways to attack us. Now there are enough of us on these sites to make it worth their while. So we need to be careful clicking on links—as careful as when we open an ordinary email. Remember: Just  because it’s from a friend doesn’t mean it’s safe.

Needless to say, make sure you’ve got antivirus software on your computer, and make sure it’s up to date. Also, make sure your browsers and operating system are up to date too: Antivirus alone is not enough to protect you. (I would recommend the latest version of the Firefox browser, but if you insist on using Internet Explorer, do make sure it’s the latest version.)

Here’s another way to play safe if you’re using Windows XP. Vista—the new version of Windows—plugs this hole by default, but the older version, XP, allows users to run their computer as an administrator. This means you can do anything—install software, change important settings, etc—which is good, but dangerous, because it means anything that can insinuate itself onto your computer can do the same thing.

This might be possible even just visiting a website—you don’t have to actively download or install anything—so it makes browsing potentially lethal. Better to forego those administrative privileges and play safe. The problem is you’ll have to switch back and forth between administrator and ordinary user should you want to install legitimate software, or change the settings on your computer.

Here’s a simple enough way round this: This link–http://is.gd/1JR6—will take you to a step-by-step guide I’ve written to surfing without administrative rights, while keeping those rights for everything else you do. That adds another layer of security that would save you from the kind of scary stuff I’ve been talking about. I’d recommend you do it right now.

Final word: Facebook et al are great playgrounds to mess around with your friends. But it’s not a bouncy castle: You can still hurt yourself.

Google’s Sleazy (and Broken) Updater

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Sorry to see that Google is going the sleazy route that Microsoft and Apple have ploughed before, namely trying to hoodwink and browbeat users into installing and automatically updating software they don’t want via an installer.

Try to download Google Earth now, for example, and you’ll be directed to the Google Updater, which will try to persuade you to install software you didn’t ask for. (A great write-up of all this is at the Google Operating System blog.)

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On top of the inconvenience and sleaze of all this, I was irritated to find that the Updater doesn’t actually work: Not only that, but the help pages don’t help, and there’s no direct link to the original files so you can download them separately. (Fortunately the blog above does.)

All in all, a sure sign that Google is entering the software business, since it’s adopting the same bait-and-switch, install-by-stealth tactics of its Apple and Microsoft competitors. Shame on you, Google.

Google’s Real Problem

There’s some interesting chat about whether Google is in trouble, although none of the pieces ask the question that I think is the most important one. BusinessWeek points to the fact that none of its new products are really gaining traction, which may be less down to the quality of those products — Earth, Finance, Chat etc — and more down to the fact that the whole point about Google for most people is keeping things simple:

The problem is that every time Google branches out, it struggles with the very thing that makes its search engine so successful: simplicity. The minimalist Google home page offers a stark contrast with the cluttered sites of key rivals Yahoo and MSN. People go to Google to find information fast. So Google can’t showcase its plethora of new products without jeopardizing this sleek interface and the popularity that generates a $6 billion geyser of cash from search ads. But the lack of exposure for its new products means only 10% of Google visitors use it for anything other than Web and image searches, says Hitwise.

To that I’d add the fact that it’s not just about exposure. Most people use the Internet for simple things, like finding stuff. They’re just not that interested in other things, however much we’d like them to be.

Meanwhile Robert Scoble wonders aloud why there is no real Google presence at the Gnomedex conference, a select gathering of developers and dweebs. And someone called SlashChick writes along the same lines as BusinessWeek, pointing out that Google’s approach of allowing employees to use 20% of their time developing new ideas may be fine when it’s a private, smallish company, but now it’s getting big won’t work so well if those projects make only a few hundred thousand dollars for the company. Alongside the earnings from AdSense, assigning employees to maintain these products will be hard to justify:

Once Google realizes they have to cut back and only continue development on the projects that did “stick”, inevitably, they will crush a few of their developers’ hearts. I have a feeling some of those developers may even become jaded and go out and start their own companies (sort of like the many software companies spawned by former Microsofties in Redmond.) Those companies may even grow to become quite successful. Hmm…

Good points, and it’s interesting to see how this view leaves Google vulnerable. Of course, it only needs one of these products to be vaguely as successful as search to draw enough users to justify it. And perhaps Google is hoping that one of its Microsoft-killers will kick in, and then the tables will be turned.

But all this rests on the idea that Google Search and AdSense continue their symbiotic relationship. The first provides dominant search, the second provides dominant ads that (for the most part) come from people using Google Search. AdSense would never have been successful were it not for Search, since the latter gets the eyeballs, the former brings in the cash. But what happens when one starts poisoning the other? What happens if AdSense starts to undermine the efficacy of Search? I’d argue this is already happening: web spammers are already successfully manipulating search results so that users visit their AdSense-laden web sites. This is happening with both ordinary search and News Search. Despite the obvious conflicts of interest here, most worrying for Google’s shareholders is the idea that its search engine may not be good enough anymore. Is this what’s keeping Google’s developers away from Gnomedex?