Really, It's Not Spyware

"Arrgh! Stupid spyware!"

That's what I thought, or something along those lines, when a new window popped up on my computer this past weekend. It was asking me if I wanted to update the Viewpoint Media Player, a program I'd never heard of or knowingly installed. In typical strong-arm fashion, I wasn't given the choice to say "no" -- simply to acquiesce or to ask for more information. Considering that something had already snuck onto my computer, I could only imagine what I'd be signing onto by agreeing to the update -- having my every keystroke posted alongside my picture on the big screen at Times Square, or some such atrocity. So I asked for more info, and this is the first thing that popped up:

"Viewpoint Corporation is a publicly-traded company (Nasdaq: VWPT  ) that provides Internet graphics and delivery technology to Fortune 500 companies including AOL, General Electric, General Motors, IBM, Microsoft, Samsung, Toyota and Sony.."

A publicly traded spyware company? I decided I had to learn more.

Perhaps Viewpoint or its software is familiar to you by name. It wasn't to me, but I quickly learned that I've probably been seeing its products in action for a long time. Viewpoint is in many ways a bricks-and-mortar multimedia advertising company with an online twist. Unlike ad serving firms like DoubleClick (Nasdaq: DCLK  ) , ValueClick (Nasdaq: VCLK  ) , or privately held Bluestreak, Viewpoint actually helps make ads. It employs photographers, artists, sound engineers, and animators, as well as the folks who make all the subterranean software that brings the result to your home computer. The ad-serving companies, on the other hand, make data mining tools and software that allow advertisers to manage online campaigns. (For this reason, Yahoo! classifies DoubleClick and ValueClick as advertising companies, and Viewpoint as a software company. Yes, that was sarcasm.)

It's not really fair to call the Viewpoint Media Player spyware, I finally decided. Sure, it may have installed itself without my knowledge when I downloaded some other program -- say, an update to Adobe (Nasdaq: ADBE  ) Acrobat -- or perhaps it was preinstalled on my computer, as is commonly the case these days.

Viewpoint stresses on its website that its products do not collect "personal data about you or your usage patterns, nor do we install third-party software or access information on your hard drive." Reading between the lines, it seems safe to assume the company does collect general, non-identifiable information about you to share with its clients. And if you go to the website looking for information about how to get this program off your computer, you're out of luck.

Viewpoint is obviously sensitive to the notion that its program may look and smell a bit like spyware, at least judging by the "No Spyware" disclaimer on its homepage. It seems to be, in fact, a bit defensive about the issue. Perhaps it's unrelated, but revenues are down for the first nine months of 2004 over the previous year (fourth-quarter results have not been reported yet), and losses have been trimmed, mainly by virtue of the fact that the company has slashed R&D, administrative, and sales and marketing expenses.

Viewpoint may be the victim of its own business model. It compares its product to other browser plug-ins like Macromedia's (Nasdaq: MACR  ) Flash, but there's a big difference. Flash has direct appeal to consumers, who often seek it out and download it, knowing the software will allow them to see online content they would otherwise miss. And, along they way, Flash happens to be the platform for a lot of online ads. Viewpoint, on the other hand, created its media player simply as a way to serve up the content it helps clients and their agencies create. It's a business-to-business strategy, with the guy at the end of the modem just the passive recipient.

To be able to offer clients cutting-edge graphic capabilities, Viewpoint has to keep the Media Player, which its website says is installed on about 60% of computers in the U.S., up to date. Needless to say, most folks don't even know they have the player and have no reason to want to keep it, much less update it. Viewpoint's latest answer to this conundrum is essentially to alert users that there is a stowaway aboard -- many, like me, discovering the program's presence for the first time -- and then strong-arm them into updating. It's not a tactic that I found particularly appealing, nor does it seem to have won a lot of hearts and minds at the spyware forums I visited. (I won't repeat the comments I read.)

My humble proposition to Viewpoint: If your company needs consumers to keep an updated version of your media player around, give them a reason to want it. How about a Viewpoint game? Viewpoint greeting cards? Unique Viewpoint content that isn't an ad or a product demo?

After looking over the Viewpoint website, I'm still unsure what functionality the Viewpoint Media Player offers that other programs don't. If it has the unique capabilities it claims, it should show them off. Indeed, the company has ventured a few halting steps down this road recently, offering a free Viewpoint Toolbar that offers "visual bookmarks" and thumbnail images of search results, along with some more mundane features.

So is the Toolbar a good product? Ask someone else. I don't particularly want to plug any new software into my browser that comes from an advertising company. And therein lies the rub.

Fool contributor Karl Thiel believes ads are a dish best served anonymously. He is a member of theMotley Fool Rule Breakersnewsletter team. He does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.


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