Y Combinator is funding the future of spam in Windows – drive-by crapware installers

installmonetizer

Many people in the technology startup community have very high regards for Paul Graham and Y Combinator, the exclusive seed accelerator program in Silicon Valley which has under its belt acclaimed successes like reddit, Airbnb and Dropbox. There’s equal standing for Andreessen Horowitz, a private equity investment company with notable alumni such as Groupon, Instagram and Skype.

Now those people and companies have put their most valuable support – money, experience and brand – behind “InstallMonetizer“, a company that describes itself as a “windows based software monetization platform”. Very carefully selected words.

Let’s not beat around the bush. This is a company that makes drive-by installers that bundles all sorts of life-savingsarcasm toolbars and adware when installing apps on Windows.

Perhaps even worse, the company’s “solution” also includes “Post Install Conversion Tracking“. Alarmingly, it’s tracking software (some would call it spyware) that monitors and uploads user’s ongoing usage activity of the bundled crapware.

installmonetizer2

Although the company claims it is all “non-personally identifiable data”, according to its website this surprisingly includes not only IP but the globally unique MAC addresses.

According to a TechCrunch article today, InstallMonetizer has been supported by a $500,000 investment from an array of top-tier Silicon Valley investment firms. If nothing else, this guarantees that not only does this company and its practices continue to exist, but it will continue to grow.

As an experience-critical Windows user and app developer, I can sympathize with software developers all too well. It can be damn hard to make a good app and it can be even harder getting compensated for the hard work. So it’s understandably enticing when a company teases an independent developer with promises of great wealth.

I know this because I’ve been in that exact situation. Multiple times.

Over the course of two years since I’ve been designing the MetroTwit for Windows app, we’ve been approached by three different crapware installer offers. Of course they don’t call themselves that.

For the purpose of full disclosure, here’s what one email exchange looked like:

Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 12:14 AM

Dear Mr. Long Zheng,
I hope this email finds you well.

My name is [Name removed] and I`m the Strategic Partnerships manager at [Company removed].

I am contacting you since I came across metrotwit.com activity, and was highly impressed both by the professionalism & quality of your product.

I would like to discuss a potential partnership between our companies that will significantly increase Pixel Tucker Pty Ltd revenues.

Would you be available for quick call to discuss our offer in more details.

Looking forward to hearing back from you.

Sincerely,

[Name removed].


Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 12:18 AM

Hi [Name removed],

Thanks for your email. Would this be some sort of distribution partnership? If so, unfortunately we have a strict policy not to install any other third-party apps with MetroTwit.

Regards,

— Long Zheng


Mon, Dec 31, 2012 at 9:27 PM

Hello Mr. Zheng,
Thanks for your quick reply.

We launched similar cooperation with WinZip, Nero, TuneUp, Yahoo, and dozens of other reputable brands so this it’s a shame we can’t work together.

Personally I believe you can still present high quality product to your users and make good monetization out from it.

Based on our estimation this type of cooperation, will add a new revenue channel, estimated at $90,000 – $120,000 each year for your company.

I can assure you that your users will be presented with a compliant offer screen, which they can choose if they want to install the [Product removed] toolbar or not. We can even have it on opt in (users need actively give their consent to the offer).

In case you change your mind on this in the future, kindly let me know so we can make progress.

Best regards,
[Name removed]

For the purpose of brevity, other offers included per-install payouts between $0.30 to $1.50. Not an insignificant amount of money if you factor in many of these companies encourage multiple bundles at once. If one doesn’t make it wrong, four can’t be that bad either.

I’m not going to delve into the technical aspects of crapware – its effects on system performance, reliability and satisfaction are pretty well documented. The fact that there is a thriving ecosystem of “crapware, adware, spyware” removers is enough evidence it’s a significant issue.

Perhaps more importantly, I strongly believe crapware installers among other foul practices have eroded the trust of the Windows app ecosystem as a whole.

What used to be a fairly standard flow of app discovery has turned into a minefield of misleading download links on websites, defaulted checkboxes or sneaky install crapware buttons in position of “next” in wizards and browser homepage overrides. And it just takes one wrong click to have irreversible consequences.

Last but not least, disregarding the moral factor of this investment, I’m puzzled why such visionary investors would invest in a process that is slowly being phased out by changing industry practices.

Since app stores and mobile apps are now the de facto standard of software for all the major computing platforms, this is one of few startup investments I can think of in a market that is well-documented to be shrinking in the near future.

In conclusion, I admit every person and company has the right to set their own moral compass, but it’s genuinely disappointing to see such respected and influential people and companies put their weight behind a practice that has undermined and continues to undermine the credibility of the Windows app ecosystem.

At the same time I’d like to draw attention to and acknowledge to all the Windows app developers who has refused and actively refuse crapware by putting the interests of their users and other hard working developers above their own.

Update 16/1: In a bizarre discovery by my friend Terence Huynh, it turns out Microsoft plays a part in its own platform ecosystem’s demise by using InstallMonetizer to promote the Bing toolbar, according to an older version of the company’s website.

Update 16/1: My friend Rafael Rivera has uncovered some unnerving contradictions in their privacy policy:

We gather personally identifiable and may include information regarding your geo-location, ip address, operating system, language setting and information regarding whether recommended advertiser software has been accepted, downloaded, installed and any reason for failure installing. None of his information is personally identifiable.

Update 16/1: Y Combinator’s Paul Graham has responded with

We’re investigating. It will take at least a couple days, because we’ll need to meet with the founders in person.

51 insightful thoughts

  1. Their privacy policy is full of typos and even has this scary line in it:

    “We gather personally identifiable and may include information regarding your geo-location, ip address, operating system, language setting and information regarding whether recommended advertiser software has been accepted, downloaded, installed and any reason for failure installing. None of his information is personally identifiable.”

  2. The most important line here is: “Perhaps more importantly, I strongly believe crapware installers among other foul practices has eroded the trust of the Windows app ecosystem as a whole.”

    This is one of the top 3 reasons I left Windows. I had to dodge so much crap and wonder even if I selected No to the software, did something else end up there anyway. So far within the Linux / Apple ecosystem it’s not quite as bad although I’m seeing some signs it’s on it’s way to Apple – which is really disappointing.

    1. Are you honestly surprised that it’s starting to appear on Apple’s computers? The reason why it’s so prevalent on Windows is that 90% of people use Windows so it’s the best platform to target with this crapware. The more people that start to use Apple computers the more this kind of thing will be targeted to Apple computers.

      OSX isn’t untouchable, it’s just less popular.

      1. Ten years ago, when OS X was used by graphic designers and computer science graduate students, the users were pretty sophisticated.

        But OS X has been promoted as the way to leave all your Windows problems behind. So people who are so technically-incompetent that they’ve installed four or five different browser toolbars are now making their way to OS X.

    2. Trust?, there was a good reason you switched to Apple. I’ve thought about it but can’t afford it. The Apple breach earlier this past year was just another sign of things to come. Trusting a capitalist commercialized company is sort of like trusting the proverbial used car salesman. There are companies out there that do try to keep our best interests at heart but that is the exception rather than the rule, unfortunately.

  3. Paint.net and Picpick were two of my favorite apps, until they started doing this. I have sense switched to alternatives. Hopefully I am not alone.

      1. Yeah, I love ninite, and it gets better and better.

        I am surprised that Microsoft hasn’t come out with a Windows XP/7/8 App Store — why do you think they haven’t?

        Can I ask why you think Y Combinator funded InstallMonetizer?

      1. Your account of the horrible old download experience for Paint.NET is correct (I’ve seen it myself) but they’ve since cleaned it up considerably. You still need to click through two pages and unpack a ZIP file, but there are no more deceptive crapware download links.

      2. Correction to my previous reply: I inadvertently tested the site with AdBlocker. Without it there’s still a gigantic crapware download button. The site is somewhat cleaner but not entirely cleaned up. Sorry!

  4. > We’re investigating. It will take at least a couple days, because we’ll need to meet with the founders in person.

    What’s that supposed to mean? Didn’t they know what they were investing in?

  5. “We can even have it on opt in (users need actively give their consent to the offer).”

    If opt-in was standard and no other cheap tricks were used (like install on the right, don’t install on the left) I’d be perfectly fine with it.

  6. The Bing toolbar is horrible. I recently got a new laptop, and once on the net promptly opened internet explorer to do what everyone does with internet explorer, download a better browser. But before i could even type a url into the bar… A windows account control icon had popped up asking me whether to allow the “bing installer” to make changes to my computer. I pressed no. It installed anyway.

    This is ridiculous on three counts. 1) I had simply opened internet explorer, and it already self installed crapware.
    2) It didn’t ask my permission to install and 3) It overrode the input to not install when user account control took notice of it.

    To top it off, when i uninstalled the bing toolbar using the add/remove programs tab in control panel… It then wanted to know why i was uninstalling, what i was dissatisfied with and if it could send a report to the makers of bing

  7. I don’t think that this startup is in it to take over the great market of application installers. I think they simply want to dominate the niche market of crapware installers. If they can make a system that’s better than every other crapware installer, they can still make money before the entire market collapses.

  8. YC/Paul Graham operates like this: “build it quick and flip it for a fat profit”. They are not interested in being architects and offering real services. Reddit is an exception, it improved on Digg.

  9. @MichaelKeegan: The prompt you saw wasn’t asking whether BingToolbar could install; it was asking for permission to change admin settings. The reason BingToolbar was preinstalled is because your OEM got paid a dollar or two.

    As to the Paint.NET issue: misleading Google Ads are the culprit there, and those ads are *tuned* to drive crapware because the misleading ones have a high-clickthrough rate. The Fiddler website had this problem even when I clearly identified all Google ads with flashing marquees. Fortunately, when Telerik acquired Fiddler, all the ads were removed. If you’re using IE, you should *strongly* consider running a TPL to strip out these deliberately-misleading advertisements; see http://www.enhanceie.com/ie/tpl/.

  10. I run http://jacobsm.com/mjsoft.htm MJ Registry Watcher which successfully prevents any crapware being foisted onto a clean Windows system. It spotted that, when Google Chrome installs, it writes 2 autostart registry entries and 2 scheduled tasks to ensure that its updater is always running. Who knows what the updater also does! I update Chrome by going to the “About Google Chrome” menu option. I also hate those “quick start” tray apps like Java and Open Office try to install. The worst problem, though, is all the crapware that comes pre-installed on major brand new PCs. It is really annoying as a systems installer, having to uninstall this nonsense from new PCs. HP, Lenovo, Acer and Asus are major culprits for this kind of rubbish.

  11. Knowing how InstallMonetizer works. It is truely packager of crapware. Why did YC found crap like these?

    Any word from 1/16 comment about meet with founders?

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