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jRant

You know that program for Windows called Weatherbug? That little application you install on your PC to give you weather updates live to your desktop? That program that chirps at you when a line of thunderstorms is barreling down on your location? Of course you do. You might even use it yourself.

I hate that program.

And this is not an idle hate, born of ignorance and perpetuated by misunderstandings. This is a hate born of experience and nurtured by facts.

As many people know, I am a huge anti-spyware activist. I write about it alot in my columns, I rant about it on my radio show and fight it each and every day at my job. I have even gone so far as to document my own remedy, affectionately known as the Jay Lee Patented Spyware Removal System that outlines some free programs and useful steps to help rid one’s computer of this scourge of technology.

Many years ago (back in the day as the kids say) when the Intraweb was just getting started ingenious web designers discovered that they could imbed HTML code in a web site that would cause a window to spontaneously erupt on your computer screen. And it wasn’t long before someone figured out that this window could hold an advertisement and the dreaded pop-up was born.

Web sites around the world utilized the pop-up as a way of pushing content to their web browsing visitors. These same sites recognized the earning potential of the pop-up when the realized they could sell this space to various advertisers like so many virtual billboards and pop-ups soon rivaled or even replaced the more common banner click-through ad that one would see on any given web page.

This, of course, gave birth to a burgeoning cottage industry. Pop-up blockers; useful little utilities that you could run on your computer that would close a pop-up window with a satisfying “pop” sound effect.

As pop-up blockers grew in popularity I can recall discussions on the ethics of using them. Otherwise sane people in the Internet industry would say “You must not run pop-up blockers! Those web site depend on the revenue of the advertisers! How will the web remain free?”

They argued that pop-ups were a necessary evil and that pop-up blockers were more harmful than helpful.

Nobody listened. Maybe they should have. Regardless, pop-up blockers became common place and pop-up ads were steadily being squashed. Web surfers were putting the mouse pedal to the metal and blazing along at speeds of 33.6 and some of the more fortunate propelled themselves forward at a staggering 56k.

Many web sites gave up as the potential revenue from pop-up ads declined. Why advertise in pop-up form if your potential audience never even saw the ad? Most advertisers went back to the old fashioned pay per hit method of the click-through banner ad and all seemed right with the world.

I don’t know what year it was. It had to be about five years ago. I was happily cruising along, surfing the net and for some reason I was compelled to look at the logs of my pop-up blocker (Adsgone as I recall) and I noticed that an awful lot of ads had been blocked in the short time I was surfing the web. For some now forgotten reason I decided to shut down the pop-up blocker and see what would happen.

Much to my dismay, my screen began to fill with pop-up advertisements! Not just the one or two you would expect from normal web browsing of the time, but dozens of them. As I dug around and explored and Google-searched the matter I came to a gruesome discovery. I had programs running on my computer that were generating pop-up ads! These were not the pop-ups I was familiar with, pop-ups generated by HTML code in a web site. These were coming from a stand alone program installed on my PC! Not only that but I noticed additional search bars in my web browser. Add-ons that were redirecting my web traffic to who knows where.

This is my first revelation and experience in dealing with what is commonly referred to today as spyware and adware.

Before I go on I should mention here that the term spyware is pretty loosely used these days. Many programs that are called spyware are not, in fact, spying on you. More often it is adware, software designed to steer you toward advertising. Another term for spyware and adware is malware (malicious software). No matter what you call it, it usually on your PC and you want it gone.

The primary culprit in my situation was a program called Weatherbug. Like so many people I just didn’t know that this little “free” utility came bundled with some other programs, programs that caused my computer to spew pop-up ads and installed browser helpers designed to redirect my web surfing to advertisers sites.

Weatherbug is a company and like any company they have one primary goal and that is to generate revenue.
Part of their revenue stream is derived from the add-ons to their software that generate the pop-ups and hijack your web browser. If you purchase their program you can get rid of the ads but if you want to use the “free” version you have to live with the pop-ups and other nastiness.

At this point I am annoyed. I looked at Weatherbug and checked out their Terms Of Use and End User License Agreement. It plainly states that the free version comes with MyWebSearch which is adware. If you remove MyWebSearch then Weatherbug ceases to function unless you opt for the pay version.

Fine by me. It’s all going away. I’ll get my weather from weather.com or NOAA.

The uninstall goes ok. Not great, but ok. I have to struggle a bit with it and go in and manually delete some things and it’s gone. I immediately notice an improvement in performance of my PC and I even get rid of my ad blocking software as the ads are minimal and I gain even more system resources.

Hallelujah! I’m free!

At this point I probably would not have given two darns or a heck about Weatherbug. In my mind it was a victory to discover that the program was a source of problems and simply ridding myself of it was all I needed to re-vitalize my Internet optimism. Little did I know what was coming.

In my day to day I do a lot of computer advising. My day job, my ra-didio show and my weekly column and almost daily Helpline blog not to mention the family members, friends and friends of friends who call, e-mail or shout their computer questions at me on a daily basis. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a chosen path and one I embrace.

In the course of solving my own problems I use this experience, strength and hope to assist others and it wasn’t long before a question about Weatherbug came along. I used it in my column for the Houston Chronicle and I outlined the pitfalls of this application and cautioned my readers against installing or using this program.

Much to my surprise I received not one, not two but THREE e-mails from three different employees of Weatherbug. Apparently my column was found and sent around their company. They each took the time to explain that their program was not spyware and it was not adware and how great they were and yadda-yadda-yadda. I tried e-mailing back and referencing the section in their Terms Of Use and End User License Agreement where it plainly states that the free version comes with MyWebSearch which is adware but they would have none of it.

After a few e-mail exchanges I gave up. Was this the end of my ongoing saga with Weatherbug? Nope!

As my crusade against spyware/adware/malware continued I found myself fielding question after question about this problem. I worked it into the column as often as I could. The radio show began to sound like the Spyware Show for crying out loud. This was/is a problem of epic proportions.

As I wrote my column I would end up mentioning Weatherbug on occasion. I was always careful not to call the program adware or spyware or even Malware. I just pointed out that if you have it installed on your computer you might find your life to be way more pleasant and worth living if you were to remove it.

And guess what? Each and every time I would mention it I would get contacted by Weatherbug challenging what I had to say.

I appreciate that they want to evangelize their product and protect it’s reputation. I even respect that. Sadly, one fact remains. When you install the free version you get a pile of software crap on your PC you would be better off without. I won’t hesitate to tell you that and I likely won’t be changing my position on this anytime soon.

I only casually mentioned Weatherbug in today’s HelpLine Blog which you can read here. I was comparing it to another malware offender known as Smiley Central which also installs garbage on your computer. The article had not been online more than one hour when I received a comment from the CTO of Weatherbug, Benjamin Beroukhim. He wanted to direct me to his editorial reply at networkworld.com where he was responding to NetBuzz columnist Paul McNamara and his recent observations regarding Weatherbug’s efforts to bolster their corporate image at the 2005 Interop conference in Las Vegas.

In his response to Mcnamara and Networkworld Beroukhim (The CTO of Weatherbug) went so far as to post this missive on the Weatherbug corporate blog in which he called into question Paul McNamara and Network World’s regard for human life. Good lord!

On of McNamara’s readers did respond by saying that “It looks like WeatherBug only cares about the lives of Windows-using employees since there is no version for Mac or Unix/Linux,” “Maybe it’s part of a bigger Microsoft plot to eliminate users of competing operating systems?”

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm….

So I guess this blog entry is my response to Beroukhim. With the proper tags in this blog entry and all the right keywords like “spyware” and “weatherbug” in the same story I fully expect a response from him or one of the other Weatherbug faitful within the hour. Maybe I should have him on the show?

Nahhhh…it would end up being an infomercial for malware and what kind of anti-spyware crusader would I be if I were to allow that to happen?

I would like to go out on a positive note and I will do that by promoting Konfabulator (now called Yahoo Widget Engine), a nifty desktop utility for Windows that will magically provide current weather conditions to your desktop for free and without one single pop-up. Will wonders never cease.