Wednesday, August 24, 2011

CNet screws the pooch, wraps all downloads in crapware installer

Update 2: According to Renegade on the DonationCoder forums, my initial understanding of what CNet is doing is not entirely accurate. Rather than actually wrapping software installers in an additional install routine that makes unrelated offers to users for CNet's profit, CNet is instead giving users a download manager with ads in it that then downloads the original software's installer. This is not as bad as initially thought, in particular it probably has far less significant legal consequences (if any), but it's still a bad practice on CNet's part, especially without notifying developers or giving them a clear, free opt-out method.

Update: Some good-ish news from Seth Rosenblatt of CNet, posted in a comment on GHacks.

In case you haven't heard, CNet has decided to take the morally reprehensible and legally questionably step of wrapping all downloads on its web property in a proprietary installer that prompts users to install a toolbar or other "offer". The profits from this go straight to CNet, authors don't see a dime. Not only that but they have the gall to charge authors for the ability to remove the crapware installer. They're claiming all this is "for the benefit of the user", but there's no real benefit to the user anyone seems to be able to point to. Needless to say many software authors are horrified, angry, and looking for options. DonationCoder has some discussion and thoughts from a few such software authors affected by this new policy.

As an added sad little wrinkle, many authors don't even choose to upload their software to, it gets up there through other means, user submission or editor selection for example. Authors then have to request their software be removed, and sometimes it takes a while to get a response. Meanwhile CNet is now profiting off their app as long as it's up there.

From a moral standpoint this is clearly very bad. CNet is making money off of the work of others while doing little or nothing themselves. Providing hosting is great, but it's pretty cheap these days. Reviews are helpful but take little time in the overview style CNet uses. What other value is CNet providing? But obviously nobody expects big companies to act on moral grounds. What's more surprising is that they see this as a legally sound move given that many software products are distributed with explicit EULA and/or distribution agreements that prohibit modification, commercial use, and profiting by 3rd parties. While CNet may or may not have dealt with this for larger, commercial vendors, I'm certain they haven't done so for smaller authors whose legal right to determine the distribution terms of their software is just as valid and important as larger publishers.

Many are now wondering what to do in the wake of this new policy. I think the options are pretty clear:

If you are a software downloader who might have used in the past, stop immediately, do not pass go, do not download another file from them, and don't return to their site. If you're really feeling fired up about it like I am, write them a polite by clear email. You can do that here:;contentNav
It also wouldn't hurt to Twitter, post on Facebook, Google+, or write your own blog post. Spreading awareness is the strongest weapon we as normal users have.

To get your software fix now that you can't use, consider Fileforum, Snapfiles, Softpedia, or Brothersoft. Note: I'm not personally vouching for any of these, they're just other sites I'm familiar with and which, to my knowledge, are not yet bundling crapware. Of course the best policy is always to download from the official website for the software in question, if possible.

If you are a software author whose software is currently hosted on your choices might be a bit more complicated, but they are still fairly clear. You can of course simply remove your software outright (and email a strongly worded complaint to CNet while you're at it). I think this is the simplest and perhaps best approach, but you might be concerned you'll lose search engine placement, reputation, reviews, download stats, etc. Some of this is true, yes, but the question is whether it's worth compromising your relationship with your users for this. When a user downloads your software from, their user experience is compromised with no real benefit to you, the customer is likely to be unaware of the source of the crapware that may get installed, and they're likely to blame you. By removing your software you may be losing some downloads, but you are ultimately protecting your long-term relationship with your users and that's worth a lot more than a few extra downloads. 

Some might question whether it has any affect on CNet for you to remove your software. The likely answer is no, unless your software is extremely popular, but if 100s or 1000s of authors do this, then it may in fact impact their bottom line. But more importantly it's the value of your relationship with your users that is at stake here, not whether you can in fact strike back at CNet. Being able to do that could be vindicating, perhaps even bring about change eventually, but it is much harder to achieve and the effect is questionable. What is not questionable is that your relationship with your actual users is damaged by CNet's download wrapper policy, so you owe it to yourself and your users, if nothing else.

One possibility that has been mentioned if you do want to keep your software on, perhaps even use it as a weapon against CNet, is to use your own installer detection routines to trigger informative or anti-CNet messages whenever your installation is launched from a CNet wrapper installer. This may in fact be an effective weapon, though I doubt CNet would tolerate it for long. But I'm very curious to see someone try it.

One last thought for developers, if your EULA or distribution terms are clearly stated and indicate that what CNet is doing are illegal, you might consider letting them know about this fact (politely but firmly). They should be aware that they are on legally dubious ground. I doubt any real lawsuits will come of it, but you never know. Perhaps an enterprising software author with a bee in their bonnet could even setup a petition or Facebook group to collect interest in a class action suit...

The sad thing is has been a pretty decent site for a long time and has been around since the earlier days of the Internet. I myself have used it as a source of free software downloads for years. Yes, I've enjoyed the benefits of these free services and, yes, taken them for granted. But they survived this long without screwing over their users, I can't help but wonder why now. Maybe CBS Interactive is looking to balance the books and squeezing some of its business units for revenue to make up the difference, who knows. 

All of this upset could have been avoided, too. CNet has a need to remain profitable to survive, that's certainly understandable. They provide some services that do deserve some kind of compensation, even if "only" ad revenue. They made the decision that they needed additional revenue sources, which is their right. Where things got off track is not consulting the authors of the very software they depend on for their high traffic numbers and existing income. What they may be doing now is gambling on a new revenue source at the possible expense of an older one, if the outrage I'm seeing is indeed any real indication of future usage and traffic numbers. It could in fact affect their bottom line and they may end up seeing a net negative in profit as a result.

What CNet should have done is roll out a new developer incentive program. Something like OpenCandy, but CNet-driven and opt-in. Share the revenue from installer-based offers with the software authors themselves. Then they become your biggest advocates and sales agents. This is what OpenCandy has done, and while I am not totally in favor of it, it has been relatively successful so far. CNet has the enviable position of also being able to offer software authors not only a revenue source from software bundling options, but also an effective, proven platform for promoting and distributing their software. Add a few premium services and they've got an additional revenue source without compromising existing value and reputation. This approach could have been very successful.

It's not too late. CNet has gotten a lot of publicity from this - negative publicity but publicity nonetheless. If they changed to an opt-in, revenue-sharing model, they could turn the negative into positive and while rolling out an opt-in service from the beginning might not have made such a big splash, you can bet those who already reported on the current policy would mention an update, thus ensuring greater publicity for the venture. Could CNet be that savvy that it was planned this way all along? I doubt it. But that would be pretty clever, not to mention devious...

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Google+ Impressions

Well, it's official. I am PLUSSED. Wooo! So what do I think of Google+ so far? It rocks! Yes, there are some rough edges, yes some things don't work all of the time. But the things they are doing are either an improvement over Facebook (Circles), a totally new and potentially interesting feature (Sparks), or something Facebook doesn't have and may potentially be a "big deal" (Hangouts).

There are 4 main tabs/buttons to the primary UI. First is Home, this is basically like FB's home, including the stream of what your circles are sharing (like FB's "wall", of course), as well as controls and tools like stream selection, Spark links, Chat, Hangout, Contact Suggestions (suggestions from inside your own contacts as far as I can tell, but maybe later like FB's "do you know this person?"), and a people search bar.

Next is photos, which get top billing as one of these 4 buttons. Here you see photos from your circles (they also seem to show up in the Streams), photos from your phone, photos *of* you (face tagging is of course available, with one critical difference: you can control who is allowed to tag you without explicit confirmation), and "your albums" which are your Picasa albums. Google has a nice photo system in Picasa, so this is a great thing to get integrated. They've come up with a decent UI for browsing photos too, although sharing settings are not entirely clear yet (there's no explicit "share this photo" that I can see, although you can share whole albums; but if you make a comment on a photo it posts the photo and comment to your wall, so it's basically sharing it). You can also upload new photos. The photo viewing and commenting experience is definitely an improvement over FB (unsurprisingly as Picasa has been around for ages and is fairly mature).

Then there is a Profile link/tab. This kind of surprised me. My profile is actually somewhat barren at present. It shows my photo and my activity stream, like looking at your own profile and wall on FB, and there are additional tabs for About, Photos, Videos, +1's, and Buzz. This is in fact the only place I have seen Buzz, and it's interesting that it's still around and being semi-integrated into G+. But I would expect it to be a major tab/button up top if they actually intended to keep it. Otherwise one wonders how it differs from +1 and posts to the Stream(s). A nice touch is you can click on a button to easily and quickly view your profile as *anyone* in your contact list or as a general anonymous web surfer, so you can check to make sure your privacy settings are working very fast. Also nothing (or almost nothing) appears to be public by default, i.e. I click to view as the public web and nothing shows up in my Stream. When you click to Edit your profile, you just point and click on any part of your profile to edit it, including adding photos, links, places you've lived, personal description, etc, etc.

Last but not least is the Circles button/tab. Circles are exactly what you've heard, they're groups you can use to categorize your friends and enable sharing of specific content with specific groups extremely easily (or, seen the other way, they enable you to easily *avoid* sharing content with specific groups, e.g. the general public). They've made the Circle-making UI fun and this helps a lot in wanting to make your circles. It's also powerful, you can multi-select, drag-select, etc. so you can easily deal with hundreds of contacts, and it's all drag-and-drop with nifty animations. This functionality is definitely a big step over Facebook (and yes I've tried FB's "Groups" system). You can add people to multiple Circles, share with 1 or multiple circles, all your circles, or the public. It's a nicely flexible system that is also easy and fun to use. This to me is a big win. I know it's not as important to many other people as it is to me, but this is a "killer feature" that I have been waiting and wishing for. Once nice touch is you can easily control people's Circle membership from almost anywhere you see their profile pic (e.g. hover over a pic of "Joe" on a post he made to your Stream and you get a pop-up allowing you to add or remove him from your Circles). Little things like that set the UI apart.

Unsurprisingly the Home area seems to be where you'd hang out the most, just like Facebook. On Home are two things that also deserve some description. First there's Sparks, which I think is probably the least impressive and interesting feature, but still has some potential. This is basically like a topic-driven web link discovery system. You enter some key words and it finds you content based on them. This is not like a regular Google search, I'm not sure what they're doing, but it seems much more culled than that. I think how recent a result is plays heavily into whether it will be shown. Better than a simple search though is that you can save this to your "Spark List" and it will continually update you on new info for that area of interest. Naturally you can easily click to share anything in your Sparks. Like I said it's not too exciting, lots of other services already do similar stuff and probably do it better, but if they continue to flesh it out it could make the G+ home page even stickier by making it a real dashboard not only for all the info on your friend's activities, but also *all* your interests around the web.

Then there's Hangouts. This one seems like a possible game changer. It's not revolutionary in basic function, but its integration with a social network just may be. Basically it's "just" group video chat. It works through Google's existing Google Chat system that has included video for years. Only now it allows multiple people, and it has a pretty slick system for keeping focus on whomever is talking, or letting you choose focus, or selectively mute people. One cool feature is that it allows you to watch YouTube videos "together" (simultaneously), so you can get a fun shared experience. It's actually pretty novel, believe it or not, though it's not necessarily amazing or something you're likely to use a lot in the long run (though some people who like watching YT videos with friends more than I do might love it). It also includes text chat, and lets you invite more people in very easily. Incidentally inviting people to Hangout is the way I've found to get anyone a G+ invite. Shh, keep it under your hat! ;) When you start a Hangout it posts to your stream and others can easily join. It also documents who was part of the Hangout ("Oshyan was Hanging out with Katy and Corey").

I jumped into a Hangout with a friend who was in the room and another friend half way across the country who happened to just call me and I was able to send him an invite. I really just wanted to test the functionality but it ended up being really fun and cool. It's a well-done system and, despite the occasional glitch, works nicely. It has a simple, clean UI and just enough features to be exciting and useful, while not being overwhelming.

So you're probably wondering why I think Hangouts could be a "game changer". Well, so far group video chat hasn't really been easily or widely available. Skype, for example, just introduced it recently and they *charge* for the feature. I'm sure we all know someone who uses Skype or even Google Chat to keep in touch with friends and - especially - relatives in distant places. It's becoming almost cliche for grandma and grandpa to video chat with their little niece or nephew on the opposite coast. But until now it's just been one person at a time. Now imagine grandpa and grandpa being able to get on to chat with little Johnny and their parents, plus Sarah and her new husband living in the UK, and Bob on his trip in the Philippines. The reason I think this could be significant is because it's a potential "killer feature" that might drive adoption with "everyone else", i.e. people who aren't techies, aren't hanging out on this site, but love Facebook because it lets them (re)connect with people easily, and love Skype because it lets them see and hear their loved ones for free. Google is giving them more, and it's giving it to them in the context of a social network. People will want to be able to do this, and the only way - so far as I know - is through G+. So sign up to G+ and you can group chat with anyone you want, for free. This could be a big incentive.

Back to the Home page. The "stream" (like FB's wall) is nicely formatted and clean, and otherwise almost exactly like FB's version. All the controls and tools you'd expect are there including who is involved with a given post (for Hangouts it shows thumbnails of the people who were there for example), details of the sharing status (public, with particular groups, etc.), the ability to comment on, +1 and share any post, to mute a post/thread or the entire person or report abuse, etc. You can even disable comments and reshares on individual posts which is quite nice and another privacy-preserving feature (after all, just because you post something privately doesn't mean others will keep it private!). There are also individual streams for each Circle as well as an aggregate stream.

Another piece of the puzzle is that new black Google bar you've been seeing on the Google home page. When you're signed in to G+ it follows you around on any Google web property, letting you easily share, +1, and do other G+ type stuff. It's nice to have and I'd even like the option to let it follow me around on general browsing to make sharing easier from other sites. I imagine they might implement that sooner than later. Surprisingly +1 and other features don't appear to be rolled out across all of the major Google properties even, with YouTube one notable omission. But Shopping, meanwhile, does have +1, as does the general web. Interesting.

Last but not least, there are lots of controls in your G+ settings allowing you to adjust notification types and methods (you can even be notified via SMS). The "Data Liberation" system you may have heard about is built right in to the settings, allowing you to export data for Picasa, your Profile, Stream, Buzz, and Circles and Contacts. Facebook has similar functionality, although it didn't debut with it, and I haven't compared the two. But the easy accessibility and existence of the feature right from the start is very nice. You can also, interestingly enough, link other accounts with your G+/Google account, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Yahoo, and more. I'm not entirely sure what the linking really does yet, but it at least (optionally) adds a link to your page on that service to your profile's About area.

The one thing some have said is odd is that it's not integrated with Gmail like Facebook's new "messaging center" email thingy. I don't think that just because FB is doing it Google should too, but I do note a distinct lack of a real "private message", "direct message", or similar type feature (as far as I can tell). Your G+ contacts are your Gmail contacts though I think (haven't tested whether adding someone through G+ adds them to my Gmail contacts though), so theoretically you can just jump over to gmail to email them if you want. There's also direct chat and Hangouts. Still I see this as something that needs addressing somehow. Many a mini embedded Gmail interface or something.

Last but not least, Google nicely includes a slick Feedback tool/link. Clicking Send Feedback in the lower-right of any G+ page pops up a nifty feedback tool. It has the comment form you'd expect, but also tools to highlight or black out multiple areas of the screen just by clicking and dragging. Highlight and blackout areas can also be easily removed. When you're done marking up the page and commenting, you preview your feedback and it shows how they'll receive it. This is all very nicely done and makes giving feedback easy and even kind of fun.

Now I should mention that my impressions about the UI might need to be taken with a grain of salt depending on your perspective. I hate and have always hated the Facebook UI and find it very unintuitive. I'm usually quite good with web UIs and software UIs in general, so it's always frustrated me that FB's is so opaque to me. Google's is much better, but I don't know how objective that is. I'm curious to hear the opinions of people here as I trust the viewpoints to critical, diverse, and interesting.

I've also just installed the Google+ Android app but haven't had a chance to play with it much yet. The UI is fairly nice though and some good ideas like auto-upload of new photos and videos for later sharing. So I'm looking forward to exploring it and expect to be using it much more than FB's app.

Overall I'm impressed and I was *not* impressed by Wave or Buzz. They appear to have gotten this right for private beta, and hopefully the rough edges will me smoothed out soon so the whole world can check it out. I'm super curious to see if this makes a dent in Facebook's domination. Like I said there are some potential killer features (Circles, Hangouts) that might just make the difference...

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More photos and general update

Woah, hey, it's been a while. Surprise! OK, not really. As is so often the case, a lot has changed. And as is also often the case, I come with promises to finish all the previous multi-part blog posts on here, soon I swear. At least the backup one, because I'm finally getting my whole data scene together. More on that soon.

On the subject of life in general, many things have changed in the past 3, 4, 5 months. Katy and I broke up (a mutual thing, but still sad and difficult), consequently I moved to a new place in the Mission (loving it!), and I finally (re)left my Bauman College job (eek, I have to set my own schedule now). Life is a bit unclear for me right now, but also full of possibility, so that's a good thing. I'm working on setting a comfortable schedule for myself, balancing work and play, getting things done for Planetside while also enjoying my new neighborhood, doing more hiking than ever (took a great one to Mt. Tam recently), and trying to meet new people. Things are good, but not quite settled yet...

Before I go, I want to mention that I'm still slowly going through the road trip photos. It's funny to me now to think that I expected to be able to edit and post these as we were on the road. Even if I'd had a working computer and Internet connection, I doubt I would have had the time or patience. Granted I'm learning a new tool (Lightroom), but I've also realized I can be super indecisive when picking between several similar photos. So culling down several hundred (or a thousand) to less 50-70 (a comfortable amount for a single gallery) can be tough. At any rate I'm doing it now, and it's enjoyable to look back at these places and remember the experiences, already starting to fade only 6 months past.

I've posted a gallery for the next stop we made after Bryce Canyon which is the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. We had some rather poor weather while we were there (it rained most days), so I really want to go back and get more hiking and exploring in. But we still saw and did some great stuff. Here's the gallery link, and the description I wrote for it:

We spent several cloudy, often rainy days at the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. Lots of challenges in exposing sky vs. ground, water, etc. Some HDR experimentation, and liberal use of Lightroom's sweet-ass graduated filter. Speaking of which, this is the first full album I developed and culled entirely using Lightroom. So far I'm liking it, but I'm really just getting used to its workflow. Once I'm "in the groove" with it I think it'll be a much better experience overall than Picasa. But I will miss the face recognition!

Writing that made me realize I ought to blog more about these experiences. My explorations may be of interest and/or use to others, especially those looking to transition from an amateur to pro tool (Picasa to Lightroom). I used to write about my techniques a bit on my photoblog (and I hope to one day again), but now that I'm not really using it, I realize I've stopped giving as much info. I'm not sure anyone was ever really super interested in the details, but hopefully they're worthwhile.

Thanks for looking and reading! More to come...