Is This a Solution to Crapware on Windows PCs?

Icons for trial software and Web services, colorfully known as "crapware," cover new Windows desktops like pockmarks on the face of a Hollywood villain.

Consumers hate crapware because it steals storage space and creates clutter. Microsoft Corp. is no fan either, as consumers blame Windows for running sluggishly, even when crapware is the cause.

Even software vendors and Web site operators who pay big bucks to PC vendors to install crapware on their PCs are becoming disenchanted, according to Michael Kuptz, CEO of Digital Delivery Networks Inc., because of low returns of less than 5% sell-through rate.

Yet crapware has an almost zero chance of going away. "Frankly, it's how the OEMs offset price erosion," said Kuptz, who should know, having spent two decades at IBM and Lenovo Group Ltd. as a PC hardware manager. Before coming to DDNi, he was vice president and general manager of Lenovo's U.S. consumer PC division.

The Scotts Valley, Calif. company is touting its solution called SmileDock. A thin toolbar that resides at the bottom of the Windows desktop and expands when clicked on into a full-fledged control panel, the SmileDock offers infomercial-type content on software and Web services chosen by the PC maker interspersed with free navigation and management features.

The latter is aimed at mainstream PC users, such as the archetypal 42-year-old soccer mom, Kuptz said.

The SmileDock won't install software or jump to a Web site until a user requests it. That avoids "sending out PCs with four to 500 MB of pre-loaded crapware," he said.

It is being used by Lenovo with its latest batch of IdeaPad consumer notebook PCs and other vendors. It has been shipped on half a million PCs in the last eight months.

DDNi was heavily marketing the latest version of SmileDock at the recent International CES trade show, as its deal with Lenovo is non-exclusive, Kuptz said. "We are actively engaged with every OEM," he said.

DDNi's business model is to share revenue with PC makers from all software or Web subscriptions sold through the SmileDock.

A number of PC vendors have built their own dashboards similar to the SmileDock, Kuptz said. Hewlett-Packard Co. , for instance, has its Total Care, he said.

But the SmileDock offers several advantages, Kuptz said. Installing the SmileDock is faster for a PC maker than creating its own custom dashboard. DDNi also brings relationships with many software vendors, so that PC vendors don't need to seek and negotiate every single one.

The SmileDock also monitors the PC system and users' usage patterns to generate personalized offers. No personally identifiable information is collected, Kuptz said, and users "can easily opt out of the data collection."

Also, the SmileDock will never interrupt a user or display an unwanted pop-up ad, Kuptz said.

Besides allowing only a select number of reputable software vendors to market their wares, DDNi will also test to make sure trialware that gets installed through the SmileDock doesn't crash that PC, Kuptz said.

Kuptz insisted that the SmileDock won't compete directly with a feature in the upcoming Windows 7 called DeviceStage. DeviceStage pops up whenever a user plugs in a peripheral, so that he or she can control it. The interface can also be used by hardware makers to market or sell their wares. HP, for instance, could detect low-ink levels in one of its printers and let users order a replacement via DeviceStage.

But Kuptz agrees that the SmileDock may incur Microsoft's ire by interfering with its desire to use Windows to push its own Web services.

"Microsoft obviously has deep desires to own as many clicks as possible and drive people to their Web properties," he said. "But users, frankly, don't all want to go Microsoft."

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