Microsoft is going to buy Claria?

On June 30, 2005 Wall Street Journal and New York Times separately reported that according to information received from reliable sources within Microsoft, the latter for more than two weeks has been in talks to buy the biggest advertising company Claria, formerly known as Gator. Claria develops a variety of adware programs such as GAIN Publishing, DashBar, Weatherscope, WebSecureAlert and others. Security experts say that Claria software is the second most prevalent adware install. These news have shocked the anti-spyware community. The offer price was reported to be 500 million dollars. By then neither Microsoft or Claria have confirmed or refuted the rumors. Lots of versions were proposed, but the true answer still is unknown. All I can do is to try to tell you more about this strange story and offer my own assumptions.

All this started three month earlier. According to Alex Eckelberry, the president of computer security company Sunbelt Software, on March 31 Microsoft changed the default Microsoft AntiSpyware Beta behavior upon Claria adware detection. Earlier builds of one of the most powerful spyware removers recommended to “Quarantine” (i.e. disable) found Claria parasites. The default recommendation of later versions was (and is) “Ignore” (i.e. not to take any actions). The user still could remove or disable critical objects via a drop-down menu, so only few users noticed the change. This could be a coincidence, but the last news make it difficult to believe.

Let’s analyse the facts. Does Microsoft really want to acquire Claria? What is the reason of such rumors? If this is true, why the software giant is interested in adware business?

The very first and simplest version is a pure misunderstanding. Microsoft deliberately or even incidentally (note that Microsoft AntiSpyware still is Beta) changed the status of Claria pests. Microsoft’s evil-wishers used the fact and spilled oil in fire in order to compromise the corporation, while the deal actually didn’t exist. Definitely this is a very simple version. But can you believe in it? I refuse to. We are talking about the leading software developer that doesn’t do anything incidentally. Microsoft decisions are well-thought-out, accidents cannot occure.

More likely that Microsoft and Claria work together under a completely new project. May it be so, but would the company, which has already developed an effective anti-spyware solution and prepares to release an anti-virus, sacrifice its reputation and work with its enemy in security field? It is very hard to believe that Microsoft was unable to find a more proper partner.

Having rejected previous version we would come to the most probable assumption. Microsoft will acquire Claria for 500 million dollars. For what? This question has several answers, each of them may be correct.

a. Microsoft will buy Claria, shut its business down and fire its employees. This once and for all will stop distribution of the most infamous adware. Having paid a fair amount Microsoft will get full access to the advertising software code that will help it to make MS AntiSpyware the most effective spyware remover. Only this program will be able to fight 100% of Claria parasites and also the huge part of similar pests made by other companies. The best way to get rid of the enemy is to purchase it.

b. Microsoft wants to get a powerful contextual advertising technology to catch up with competitors like Google and Yahoo. And what is the better place to find really working advertising technology of such type than big adware company? Moreover, Claria has a huge database consisting of data about user browsing habits. Supposedly it is 120TB in size! Microsoft definitely can be interested in this database. It would help to optimize the way advertisements are served and improve site (for instance, the MSN portal) content.

c. Perhaps Microsoft will treat Claria in same manner as its previous purchases. Original Claria products will be slightly improved in order to rehab their image. Then programs may get different names and will be used for advertising. Looks hardly believable? Considering that current Claria software is already installed on computers of the 40 million people and Microsoft may integrate similar applications into all Windows systems around the world, the benefit from the deal with Claria becomes obvious.

Although many discussions are going on, Claria and Microsoft keep silence. No detailed responses were received, except for the official MS letter “Response to questions about Claria software” (http://www.microsoft.com/athome/security/spyware/software/claria_letter.mspx), which still doesn’t explain the rumors.

It would be interesting to know the opinion of well-known security professionals. Their experience and knowledge may help us to understand the situation.

Alex Eckelberry, the president of Sunbelt Software: “At any rate, does this mean that Claria will, in fact, be purchased by Microsoft? Not necessarily. It could mean, however, that the two companies are working together in some other capacity, or that Claria has successfully lobbied Microsoft to change the default action. Or, it’s a simple oversight.” (Sunbelt Software Blog.)

David Moll, CEO of Webroot Software: “I’m amazed that Microsoft would consider delving into the adware space ?€¦ It’s unconscionable.” (Rumored Microsoft Adware Deals Raises Red Flags by Michael Myser, eWEEK)

Eric Howes, a spyware researcher: “The conversation in and of itself is troubling, because of the significant amount of money involved and the wrong signals it sends to other adware vendors.” (Rumored Microsoft Adware Deals Raises Red Flags by Michael Myser, eWEEK)

Versions are just versions, though. You may agree with one of them or stick with your own. Still right now nobody knows the truth except for Microsoft and Claria. Let’s just wait and see.







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