Mobility

Spam: The ultimate low in Verizon's class act as a wireless carrier

TechRepublic member dcolbert shares his disgust with Verizon's recent decision to place unsolicited commercial advertisements in the Android OS notification bar. He believes that a notification area that's clogged with special offers and spam will quickly become unusable. Do you agree?

Corporations make dumb mistakes all the time. Most are trivial enough that consumers ignore them and go on about their lives - but every now and then, some company will cross the limits in such a blatantly wrong way that you have to ask yourself what they were thinking when they signed off on a particular idea. Recently, I experienced such a situation, and my guess is that I'm not alone.

Carriers, app developers, and platform developers for mobile devices must walk a fine line with how they leverage the features of their devices. I'm not sure about other carriers, but Verizon has consistently shown bad judgment in this area. Specifically, I'm talking about unsolicited commercial advertisements that are delivered by features of a phone.

I understand that carriers want a way to reach their customers to let them know about special offers and useful handset features (and ways to increase the revenue stream coming in from the sheep... er, customers, who subscribe to their services). However, I'm insulted every time I receive an unsolicited text message from Verizon telling me how great Verizon Navigator is for only $19.99 a month. This is called SPAM.

Unfortunately, Verizon operates on the same principle as spammers. If they send out 200,000 unsolicited text messages and two people subscribe to a useless and over-priced turn-by-turn navigation service, this is "profitable" for them. Never mind the fact that the other 199,998 Verizon users are either completely disinterested or extremely disgusted by this practice.

Personally, I think Verizon is a sleazy, greedy, unethical company, so I really wasn't surprised when they acted like common spammers and abused my text message inbox. I figured this was the ultimate low in Verizon's class act as a wireless carrier - but I may have been wrong.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the Android OS, there's a notification bar at the top of the home screen. This bar has icons that display things like calendar appointments, status updates on unread e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and text messages, as well as battery life, signal strength, and other system information. You can pull this menu down and see an expanded description of the status represented by the icons.

The notification bar is a single source where Android users can quickly discover what's going on with the phone and respond to items that require action. It's arguably a better system than the iOS push notifications - one of the things that Android users have lauded over iPhone users as a superior feature of the Android OS for awhile now. I check in the morning and throughout the day to quickly stay organized and respond to messages, requests, and appointments.

This morning, I noticed a new icon in my notification bar. I pulled down the expanded menu and scrolled down to see an advertisement. QuickOffice, a MS-Office reader/editor for Android, was on sale for 50% off. The notification included a link to the QuickOffice web site. Well, I assume that it was a link to the Quick Office web site. I don't know, because I don't ever want to be the 2 out of 200,000 sheep that helps justify such an epically, momentously stupid decision as to send an application sale update via the notification system.

What kind of idiot decides that jamming up a notification area with ads for services, applications, or other special deals is a good idea? This kind of clutter here further erodes the suitability of Android devices for enterprise use, for professional applications, and users - after all, who can afford a notification area that's backed up with useless information about special offers and applications? If I was Google, I would be ballistic about this misuse and abuse of the notification bar because of the long-term implications of such activities.

To be fair, I think I might be able to understand the logic behind this moronic decision. If there are application or system updates available, those appear in the notification area first. They include a link to the appropriate area where you can download and install those updates. On the surface, this is similar to what the QuickOffice status was trying to accomplish. And that's really how spam operates, isn't it? By trying to look legitimate while duping people into purchasing a product, vendors cross a line.

We've seen this same kind of vaguely unethical behavior even from relatively reputable security software vendors in the past - the bait and switch up-sell from a free version to a paid version with what looks like an "alert" from the application. Sending me a genuine system alert that says, "Your AV engine is outdated and you should upgrade immediately to the latest version to protect you from a rapidly spreading virus" is one thing. Sending me something that looks like a genuine system alert that says, "You do not have full coverage, but you can get it by upgrading to the full version of our security suite, which is on sale this week only for $39.99, over 20% off the regular price" crosses the line into sleazy marketing that erodes trust in a product.

This QuickOffice offer, presented in the Android notifications system, is an example of the latter type of marketing. The tip-off is the uniqueness of the notification. A regular software update that doesn't stand out from any other software update is perfectly reasonable. A special update with a custom icon that leads to a web page and discusses adding enhanced features for a sale price simply doesn't belong in the notification area - especially because I can't opt-in or out of this kind of unsolicited notification.

I've never used QuickOffice before, but out of curiosity, I loaded the app on My Droid 2. The first thing that it came up was a "Register your Software" screen, asking for my name and e-mail address. The fact that they tried to reach me through a completely inappropriate avenue sets such a terrible precedent that I have no interest at this point in using their app, even though I was actually considering checking it out in the past.

Obviously, some sort of business arrangement was made to help increase the use and adoption of the full QuickOffice suite. I'm not sure who's responsible for this notification - it could be Verizon, QuickOffice, or possibly even Google - but whoever came up with the idea and authorized it clearly didn't understand the implications of their decision.

A notification area that's clogged with special offers and unsolicited advertisements will quickly become unusable. It's in the best interest of Verizon, Google, and app developers to make sure that only critical information appears in this section of the Android OS.

A long time ago, Windows spammers realized that the Machine Messaging Subsystem in Windows could be used to send spam advertisements over cable broadband networks that looked like regular system alerts from administrative staff. The quickest fix for the average user was to turn the Windows Messaging Subsystem service off - and that's just what many people did.

Abuse of a system like this makes the system more than useless, it makes it a barrier to productive, enjoyable use. Someone involved with QuickOffice for Android on Verizon phones took the first step in this direction. Hopefully, the responsible parties realize what a foolish mistake that step was and take action to ensure that it never happens again.

About

Donovan Colbert has over 16 years of experience in the IT Industry. He's worked in help-desk, enterprise software support, systems administration and engineering, IT management, and is a regular contributor for TechRepublic. Currently, his profession...

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