Down With Opt-Out, Opt-Tricky Software Distribution

Oh, the joy of downloading and installing free software — only to have a bunch of unwanted, tag-along junkware, or worse, malware, automatically installed on your computer. Why has this unacceptable practice been the norm in the software industry for so many years?

The answer to that question is two-fold: money; and lack of a better option. The fact is, software publishers see the incredible value that can be driven through utilizing their download process as a revenue channel, and sans a good way to do so, many have mistakenly turned to dubious and oftentimes deceptive opt-out software bundling.

“Opt-out” means you have to consciously choose not to install something, by unchecking a prechecked box or through some other action. Sometimes you see a practice I call “opt-tricky” — putting an “Accept” button (Yes! Please install this junk) where the “Next” button usually is.

Most would agree that turning to malware to make money is unconscionable, but opt-tricky or opt-out bundling of non-malicious software is only slightly less objectionable, in my opinion. And then there’s the problem of relevance, since the majority of the software being bundled today has little value to the person it’s being foisted upon. If it did, you wouldn’t need to be tricked into installing it in the first place.

There has to be a light at the proverbial end of the tunnel.

Opt-In Recommendations to the Rescue

Software publishers have come to realize that they need not sell their souls — or their users’ — to monetize free software. Instead, they can actually add value by helping users discover other useful software in a transparent, user-friendly way. Yes, that’s correct. There is a better way to monetize the distribution of free software, one that provides users with complete control over what they download and install.

Opt-in software recommendations are an effective approach. Using them, software publishers are able to choose other software to recommend what they believe may be valuable to their users. More importantly, users have to consciously consent to downloading and installing the recommended software. Let’s examine how an ideal opt-in software recommendation platform can work.

First, software publishers select the applications they want to recommend. Then, using a plug-in for their installer platform of choice (NSIS, Inno, etc.), the publisher integrates the plug-in into their installer in order so a dynamic recommendation can be shown to users. When a user runs an opt-in recommendation-powered installer, the installer plug-in queries a server for the list of applications the publisher has selected to recommend. Finally, the plug-in, as part of the publisher’s installer, chooses the best recommendation to show to the user.

This method lets publishers change the software they recommend at any time without rebuilding their installer. They can also keep their existing installer platform and keep their installer’s file size close to what it was before integrating the plug-in (because the plug-in is so small). Best of all, they can make dynamic recommendations with zero additional software or business development effort on their end.

Stairway to Transparency

The opt-in application recommendation model brings real transparency to software distribution and monetization, as it puts the power of choice and consent back into the hands of consumers — where it belongs.

Users saying “Yes, I want to install that!” are higher-quality users. For the software being recommended, this may result in higher conversion rates — from trial to purchase, for instance — all while helping users discover new software in a friendly way.

The ‘P’ Factor

Privacy. Let’s face it, every time we surf the Web, every site we visit is, at least temporarily — or perhaps permanently — logging personal information without our explicit permission. They’re tracking our IP address, what browser and which version we’re using, the operating system and version we’re running, where we came from (and if we came from a search engine, which search terms were used), and sometimes (depending on security settings, or lack thereof) other sites we’ve browsed during the current surfing session. There is no choice; it’s just the way the Web works.

Soon, the majority of software installers will be the same way. However, they can gather information the wrong way (as some already do), which means blatant flaunting and exploitation of user privacy — sharing personal, identifiable information internally and with any number of unrelated third parties. Or, they can do it the right way. This means not obtaining or storing personally identifiable information, and discarding users’ IP addresses, which is all possible using the method I described above. That’s much less than what most sites know about their visitors, and many orders of magnitude less than the giants of Web advertising know about us.

In summary, following are the best practices associated with an opt-in software recommendation process:

    Recommend great software. Great software means different things to different people. There are a few truisms though: Software that is recognized as safe (i.e., not malware), is from a reputable developer or company, and it is among the best in its software category.

    Create a worthwhile user experience. Set the bar for a great user experience. Ensure that recommendations are described accurately and clearly labeled as such. Don’t deceive users into thinking they have to install a third-party piece of software in order to achieve full functionality of your software. Of course, to truly create the best user experience possible, make sure recommendations are opt-in. Then users won’t end up with software they didn’t want just because they clicked “Next.”

    Eliminate “hard” bundling. Bundling third-party software into software installers means negotiating individual deals, having to offer the same software to every user, and forcing users to download more software than they want. It can also mean more development cycles and quality assurance checks each time you release a new version of your software.

    Protect privacy. Don’t transmit or store personally identifiable information during the recommendation process — and don’t retain users’ IP addresses. Enough said.

Overall, by recommending relevant applications that users will find helpful on a completely opt-in basis during the software installation process, the software industry can make true transparency the norm for software distribution and monetization. This is what users want and need. Isn’t it time to put control back into users’ hands?

Darrius Thompson is cofounder and CEO of OpenCandy, a distribution and monetization platform exclusively for consumer software providers.

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