Business Relationships vs. Hostage Situations


I’ve been working with computers for a very long time, dating back to the time when you needed to use punched cards to program them. After graduating with several engineering degrees from Penn State, I went on to design computer peripherals for a major computer firm for many years. Because of my computer experience, my friends, most of whom are not computer experts, often use me as their first line of defense when they have a computer problem. And these days, “business is a boomin’.”

Part of the reason people have trouble with their PCs is because of the aggressive nature of companies trying to shove services down the throat of anyone who gets on the Internet. Not content to festoon what might otherwise be useful information with blinking banner ads, the new target of choice is the browser’s toolbar.

Last night I was helping my auto mechanic friend with his computer because it had lost his user profile, and Windows would let him log in but wouldn’t remember any of his desktop icons or save any of his browser’s bookmarks. He needs his computer to do his job as a mechanic since GM has moved all of its documentation on-line and without a computer, you just can’t function as an auto mechanic anymore. I know that sounds unbelievable but it’s true.

While I was adding a new user and copying his data over from his prior user’s settings, which seems to be the only way to fix a broken user profile on Windows, I noticed that his browser real estate had shrunk considerably since I first helped him to set up the computer. Why? It was because numerous toolbars had somehow managed to install themselves without my friend’s help. I suppose he may have helped a little but I can assure you it wasn’t intentional. I know this because his smile brightened more each time I managed to make one of them disappear. So in addition to fixing the main problem, namely the lost Windows profile, I also spent a lot of time cleaning up the computer.

Not only did I remove the offending toolbars, but I also removed all the miscellaneous links HP had included in his browser before he even set up the computer. He was too afraid to delete these items for fear he might break something. I call this stuff ‘crapware’, because it usually induces a customer to try crippled versions of programs or services which seek to get him to sign up for a perpetual subscription to an unnecessary service. And I should mention that the computer crawled along at a snail’s pace because of its heavy-handed virus protection software which his employer requires him to use, at his expense, of course.

I might have forgotten about this travesty and you’d not be reading it here, but then I got spammed by Sun today. I’ve been constructing an article in my head about Sun Microsystems which I will publish soon about how this once proud and capable company is now engaging in a desperate attempt to monetize the un-monetizable, namely Java, by using Java’s persistent need for updates as a trojan horse. I made sure to visit Sun’s CEO blog, written by the pony-tailed Jonathan Schwartz himself, just to make sure that was their plan. Sure enough, it was.

In my haste to quiet that little Java coffee cup by saying ‘yes’ to the update, it installed Carbonite’s crapware on my PC. Now, I’m no fan of on-line backup services and had previously written a critical review of what I think of them. Part of my view is colored by an image that I will now convey to you. Hang on, because I think you’ll like it. In any event, I can guarantee you won’t forget it.

A few years ago I witnessed a sales pitch for a service to provide on-line backup. I won’t mention the perpetrator, and you’ll never guess who it was because this idea was pitched by at least a million companies over the past few years and it’s one of those bad ideas that simply will not die. But during the presentation, the presenter took several opportunities to indoctrinate us, much like he was reciting a mantra, with this phrase:

“When you hold the customer’s data, you hold the customer.”

Along with this mantra, delivered with pregnant pauses both before and after, he used a hand gesture. Imagine holding an invisible tennis ball out in front of you at approximately waist level, palm pointed upward. The image is that of grasping and squeezing a person’s unmentionables. Wow! I think I knew where he was going with this. It wasn’t a business relationship he was proposing, it was a hostage situation.

Thanks, but no thanks. I’d prefer not to get involved in that kind of thing.

Yet it is precisely this kind of desperate business model that gets investors all worked up these days. No longer can you propose to provide a useful and valuable service for which people are willing to pay. Instead you must trick them into accepting something (often something offered for ‘free’) and then force them to become some sort of stooge, paying you perpetually for your right to continually abuse them.

I can only hope that this nonsense fades into oblivion, because I don’t want to live in a world where every business relationship requires duplicity and, eventually, larceny.

The next time someone is proposing to give you something that sounds like it’s for free, grab your wallet and anything else you’d like to hang on to and run in the opposite direction, because if you don’t, your valuables will soon be in the possession of someone who may not treat them with the same respect that you have for them.