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CNET’s Download.com, the junkware blow-up and what it says about the web today

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Download.com, owned by CNET, has this week been quite rightly called out for forcing excessive amounts of junkware (i.e. unwanted, intrusive and hard to remove software programs) onto anyone who uses the service to download and install free programs. It’s true, easily verifiable, and very unpleasant.

For the innocent user this means the ‘cost’ of downloading a free program can be hours of misery as they try to find out why their favorite search engine has disappeared, or why their web browser now re-directs to an unwanted site or how they can find out what’s slowing down their computer. If you’ve ever been on the unhappy end of this kind of problem you’ll know that it’s really nasty.

So what to do?

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Well the first option is of course to totally stop using the site for any software or freeware downloads. There are plenty of other places to find great free software if you do your searching, sites such as Gizmos Freeware and SnapFiles come to mind, and they offer hassle free downloads of lots of great stuff. In fact the only reason you may have needed to use Download.com is where they are the exclusive distributor of a particular program, which suggests that maybe you should find an alternative to that product somewhere else.

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But the bottom line of all this is the fact that the Web is changing shape rapidly at the moment. The larger sites especially are being particularly hard hit by slumping advertising revenues as the downturn continues to bite, and the result is they’re trying increasingly desperate methods to maintain cash flow and fund their profitability. It’s not just junkware that we’re seeing increase, but also things like intrusive full page adverts blocking access to content (e.g. Slate.com), deceptive advertising layouts and other legal but ‘sneaky’ tricks to try and generate more revenue from the more desperate sites.

So are we at the end of the ‘free lunch’ web?

There’s no question that the landscape is changing for web publishers. We’ve noticed here at the Ferret that it’s becoming harder to generate the revenues we need to deliver free content to the world, and of course a lot of the massive organizations have already started to tie up their content behind paid firewalls. Only today the Sun newspaper, one of the largest tabloids in the UK, announced that it was joining stablemates the Times and Sunday Times as a paid member only site called the Sun+, and this won’t be the last of its type to do so.

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But despite the economic pressures we’re absolutely sure the Web will continue to thrive on free and ad supported content, without needing to resort to tricks or subterfuge to generate cash. For every dodgy CNET type site, there’s a BoingBoing.net which takes pride in its content and its social commitment, and long may it continue. So for now, we’ll grab some popcorn, settle back in our seat and wait for the next fascinating installment of the CNET name and shame game.

Nigel is the managing editor of the Red Ferret, as well as a freelance columnist for the Sunday Times newspaper in London. Loves tech and fancies himself as a bit of a futurist, but then don’t we all?

Nigel – who has written posts on The Red Ferret Journal.


3 Comments

  • It’s strange that Download.com is being called out for something that others praised by the opensource community have been doing for years. AVG has repeatedly, without my permission or even a notification, changed Chrome’s default start page, and default search engine to their own offering (which is an AVG skinned version of the Google search engine). Java.com has been auto-checking browser “helper” bars for years as well. If you were to simply click continue every time you were updating Java you would have installed a new browser bar add on.

    • I think the problem is that these programs offer just one option to install something which is kind of all right, but Download.com repeatedly tries to get you to install multiple pieces of junk at every stage of the download process. This is more than just commercial opportunism and moves into the realm of downright aggressive marketing.

  • Inexcusable. There are plenty of ways CNET could have monetized download.com without resorting to malware installs. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when total strangers on bittorrent are more trustworthy than some of the net’s most established brands.

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