Essays on Technology and Culture

Adware, Crapware, and the Value of Trust

In case you missed it, Lenovo has been in the news for pre-installing adware known as Superfish that has a huge, exposed security flaw that “exposes Lenovo users to man-in-the-middle attacks.” Truth it, it was only a matter of time before something like this happened to a major PC manufacturer. PC hardware has been commoditized, and margins in the PC business are razor thin. In order to make up lost profits, many PC manufacturers load up their machines with junk in exchange for a few extra bucks profit on each unit sold. Apple was making ads about this exact thing back in 2009, and now Microsoft offers “Signature Edition” PCs through their stores with the promise of a clean Windows install. The only other way to get a clean Windows installation is to do it yourself, which is why I’m surprised it only took until now for a major PC manufacturer to get bitten in the ass by their own profit scrounging.

Lenovo’s mistake (to put it politely) is one of the biggest violations of customer trust in an industry not known for being trustworthy. Yet, Lenovo is also a victim—the commoditization of PC hardware has made it easier, and cheaper, for people to get a decent computer that lasts longer, while making it harder for hardware companies to make a decent profit. With PC shipments dropping, quarter over quarter, it’s that much harder to keep things afloat. Computers are already something that the average person has little trust in, with endless software updates, pre-installed trialware, outsourced tech support, and pushy sales people… so what’s a little adware in an already untrustworthy relationship, right?

That’s the Catch–22 underlying this whole situation. A PC hardware company that values trust must either charge a premium or earn slimmer margins. Either way, they’re competing with cheaper, commodity hardware sold by companies with less scruples, or at least less scrupulous shareholders. Yet, inexpensive commodity PC hardware makes it easier for socio-economically disadvantaged people to get on the Internet, and become part of the digital economy. A world where one needs a middle-class income to afford a basic personal computer is a dangerous one that can lead to further social and economic inequity. This isn’t to say owning a computer is enough—It’s not, but it’s a big part.

My hope for the outcome of the Superfish fiasco is that hardware companies will think harder about the junk they load up their products with. We’ll never be free of PCs being sold with unwanted and unnecessary software. The subsidization of commoditized hardware is a frustratingly necessary evil to get computers in the hands of more people who need them. Because of that alone, I don’t think anything is going to change after Superfish. The value of customer trust in the PC hardware business just isn’t worth more than what crapware companies are willing to pay to have their products pre-installed. The end result? A two-tiered computing experience: a secure, crapware free one for the people who can pay for a “signature experience” (or a Mac), and a spammy, insecure one for the poor. At least it’s an improvement over the company that offered free, ad-supported computers in 1999. [1]

  1. A company that lasted about nine months before being bought out. How soon before some VC-backed startup tries the same thing today?  ↩