Between black and white: the state of grayware on the PC

April 25, 2008 – 4:44 AM

In the old days, as our parents frequently love to remind us, life was much simpler. You bought a computer, and when you finally figured out what you wanted to do with it, you assembled a list and went down to your local Egghead for some software. It was straightforward, if time-consuming.

All this changed when personal computers started hooking up to the Internet. Suddenly, software authors could deliver their wares to people all over the world, quickly, with negligible distribution cost. Unfortunately, reliable methods of payment hadn’t quite been figured out yet, and most Internet users expected to download software for free. In the heady days of the dot com boom, many software companies were happy enough to give out free software and trust that the money would somehow arrive later, magically (some, like the authors of WinAmp, would live to see this happen when their company was bought by America Online). Other companies released trial or demo copies of their software which could be unlocked for a fee.

Still other organizations decided that the best way to make money from free software was to be sneaky—give away something for free that appeared to do something useful but, in the background, do something tricky that would generate revenue for the software’s authors. This sneaky something could be displaying ads that the user did not request, hijacking a web browser’s start page or search engine, or scanning the user’s personal surfing habits and selling the results to the highest bidder.

Malware was born.

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