In its issue of January 29, 2009, The Guardian has published a controversial, even critical essay on Patchou, the creator of Messenger Plus!. I found it worth reading, however decide yourself.
The adware altercation
Software developer Patchou provokes fierce opinions in cyberspace. His army of fans think he’s a genius; critics say he has sold his soul for profit.
To some in the downtrodden kingdom of the geek, he is a messiah. To others, he is the devil incarnate. No one, it seems, divides opinion among the tribes of of cyberspace quite like Patchou. The software creator, real name Cyril Paciullo, is the man behind Messenger Plus! Live – which, he claims, has been downloaded 60m times and is particularly popular among teenagers. An updated version is due out at the end of this month; the forum on his site boasts 80,000 members.
Patchou’s creation is an add-on to Microsoft’s hugely popular Windows Live Messenger, or MSN, the instant messaging and social networking program used by 17.5 million people in Britain alone. Patchou’s software adds dozens of extra features, such as custom sounds, colours, clever ways to manage contacts and, for the uber-geeky, the ability to program your own tweaks.
And for that Patchou’s grateful young disciples sing his praises in thousands of web forums and chatrooms. “You rock,” they gush. Such is their adulation that one admirer boasts of making a 100mph dash to Disneyland just to spend a few minutes in Patchou’s company. The acolyte proclaims: “It was really cool to meet Patchou, he’s awesome.”
But this is a man who has also outraged millions. His sin? A Faustian pact with dark forces responsible for distributing adware, those pop-up windows that torture PC users the world over. Messenger Plus! Live comes bundled with a “sponsor’s program”, which the unwary install unwittingly on their machines. They are then subjected to messages urging them to buy insurance, take out credit cards, play poker or download ringtones. To his opponents this breaks a sacred code of geek ethics and the two sides engage in furious online debates. Supporters say Patchou has provided a brilliant piece of software free to millions of people and the adware is harmless; critics call him “a scam artist making money off gullible young Live Messenger users”.
Devil in the detail
In the middle of this maelstrom sits Microsoft, which appears to have been impressed by Patchou’s work. In 2006, the software giant was moved to honour him with a Most Valuable Professional award – but the howls of protest about his links to adware led the company to withdraw it. Although the dust has settled and the adware is easier to spot and remove, online forums remain littered with the pitiful pleas of the infected driven to distraction by the unslayable sponsor program.
So who is this demi-god/devil? In fact, he is a French-born, self-confessed geek and Star Trek aficionado living in Montreal, Canada. Even his harshest critics admire his skill and industry. After all, he’s been at it since he was 14, when he first got a computer and started dabbling with programming. “I’ve always been passionate about computers,” he says.
Messenger Plus! Live started eight years ago; it’s now a full-time job.
“Back then, I was working on it part-time, during the night, while working as a software developer for a company during the day. The popularity of the software was growing so I decided it was time to do the jump.”
Much of the success is down to attention to detail, the 27-year-old insists.
“Thousands of programs are created and put online every day. Unfortunately, a majority of them are never ‘finished’, never polished. If you do something, do it well,” he says. “I now have around 60 million active users and a lot of people working for me, directly or not. About 50 people are working to translate each new version of the software into 21 different languages and 100 more give a hand for the beta tests. You have the official helpers on the main forums and people on various websites doing the promotion of the add-on.
In a given month I may be working only 20 hours a week and the following month, I’ll get up only to put myself in front of my computer screens until I go to sleep 16 hours later. The good news is I have a very nice and forgiving girlfriend.”
And he doesn’t find it easy coping with the worldwide adulation.
“Software developers tend to be geeks and, yes, geeks tend to be shy,” he says. “Still, I’ve always enjoyed our gatherings, what we call Plus! Meetings, quite a lot. It’s a nice feeling to see many people coming from many different countries and who have never met before have some fun together, speak in real life. The software is just a pretext to socialise. It’s good to see people from time to time when you spend your days and nights in front of a screen.”
The devotion surprises his critics. Another Microsoft MVP award holder, the internet security campaigner Chris Boyd, who spoke out against Patchou in 2006, says he was taken aback by the amount of vitriol poured in his direction by the software designer’s youthful army of fans. Boyd acknowledges some of Patchou’s changes have helped soothe some, if not all, of the critics, but adds: “It’s a very peculiar business model.”
There are perhaps a dozen other Live Messenger add-ons available, although none of them have Patchou’s audience. MessengerDiscovery, started four years ago by the New Zealand-based software developer Matt Holwood, adds 150 features to Live Messenger, has racked up millions of users and has a forum with more than 8,000 members. Like Patchou, it started as a part-time project but has also become a full-time job, paid for by more traditional ads on his website.
But Holwood, 21, is scathing about Patchou’s use of adware. He says:
“Personally, I think it’s wrong and greedy. You have a moral obligation not to get greedy and infect such a large amount of unsuspecting people with malware. I’m sure he lives a very luxurious lifestyle but you have to look at the big picture. Developers should fight against that sort of trash rather than distribute it. He could live very well simply from the advertising on the website. I do, and he has seven times the visitors.”
Not into temptation
In Holland, another 21-year-old, Frans-Willem Hardijzer, known as The Blasphemer, has been running StuffPlug for the past five years. He also uses ads on his site to to fund his program, which has about 250,000 users. Although he has had to fit his project around his school and university studies, and now a full-time job, he also refuses to be tempted by adware.
“Apart from the server to host the website, there isn’t that much cost to keep it running,” says Hardijzer. “In the past I’ve made enough money through the Google AdSense program to live pretty comfortably as a student. I’ve considered selling out but I simply don’t like the idea of bundling mal/spy/adware with my program like [Patchou] does. People trust me to give them quality software and I don’t like abusing that trust.”
Adware is undoubtedly profitable. Because it inhabits a murky corner of the internet linked to more malevolent forms of computer infection, no one knows exactly how much money it generates, although estimates of up to $2bn (£1.4bn) a year are bandied about. Distributors pay those who help get their software on to them a few cents each time their adware is installed or, more rarely, each time a pop-up ad is clicked.
One notorious US adware company netted a reported $149 million in four years. Another, which was eventually brought to book by US regulators, raked in a reported $80million in three years.
Messenger Plus! is connected to a little-known company called Circle Development Ltd – which appears to be based in the Ukraine – also known as C2Media or CiD, and linked to the website Lop.com.
For people like Patchou there is plenty of potential to get rich. Challenged in forums by claims that at 6 cents an install, with 800,000 downloads a month, he could potentially net $48,000 (£34,000) a month, he responded:
“In case there would be some doubts, I’m still not paid by install. And so you know, C2Media doesn’t give 6 cents per install for the kind of package I have. For the record: I’m being paid by searches (and only for some of them), so I wouldn’t win a cent even if a billion users installed my sponsor tomorrow. C2Media (lop.com) is probably one of the best adware companies on the market today and that’s exactly why I continue to do my business with them: because they can be trusted.”
Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at Sophos, says adware is a “huge business” and some “very well-known companies” were trying to exploit the fact no one really considers what they are installing on their PCs .
“If you are a youngster, then you just press the button until the thing you want is installed,” he says. “You agree to the terms and conditions, so it’s legal. It’s human nature not to read the terms and conditions.” At best, he adds, adware is a nuisance. At worst, it can be bad for online business. “It’s not the way you want to behave on the internet. It does inflame the internet community.”
For all that, Paciullo is unrepentant.
“People who accuse me generally do not understand – or accept – that software development is not something you can finance easily these days. People don’t tend to buy software, they just download it. The idea behind an optional sponsor program is to offer a way to support the work while offering at the same time a product that’s completely free of any obligation.”
He says he may adopt the same approach for future software launches.
“It’s a win-win situation that works out pretty well.”
—Ian Pickering, The Guardian
What do you think? Adware? Malware? Software? Cool-ware? Curious to read your opinion :).