In the PC industry’s latest feat of idiocy, manufacturer Lenovo has been caught red-handed pre-installing what is widely considered to be spyware on machines they sold in the latter half of 2014. It’s an application called Superfish which is designed to help users “discover products visually” (seriously, if you came up with that tag line, punch yourself in the stomach for me) and what it essentially does is inject its own ads into user’s search results and viewed web pages with presumably a piece of that going to Lenovo. That’s scummy as shit in and of itself but worse still, this application installs its own security certificate and in doing so, can theoretically spy on the contents of encrypted communications from your browser to places like your bank and phone that information home to who know’s where. It’s not clear whether it’s designed this way out of malice or just incompetence but the capability is nonetheless there. Several different anti-virus applications consider Superfish to be malware and detect it as such, though conveniently the garbage McAfee software Lenovo’s also been pre-loading the last while doesn’t. Given that McAfee is also owned by Intel, you think they’d have higher standards than that.
Pre-loaded crap on computers isn’t anything new. Usually most consumer systems (especially the inexpensive ones) come with an anti-virus trial, some basic games, maybe a photo sharing application and stuff like that. These are usually trial versions and the idea is that if you convert to a paid user, the PC manufacturer gets a commission from that. Most people don’t convert but it’s a similar business idea to scummy free-to-play mobile games in that it only takes a small percentage of conversions to turn a healthy profit. This is how PC manufacturers are making a profit on that $399 laptop you’re buying at Best Buy that by all rights, should cost $700 at least. The margin for most non-Apple computers is razor thin. We’re talking sub-1% in some cases, worse margins that grocery stores. True story: Many years ago, I worked for Geek Squad which is a division of Best Buy. The manager of the computers department told us that the margins on the machines were so thin that if you didn’t sell an extended warranty, accessories or Geek Squad service with it, the store literally lost money on the machine, just paying the salesperson’s paltry hourly wage. That’s how thin we’re talking here.
I’ve been an evangelist for Lenovo computers for a while now. I’ve sold at least a dozen of them to clients in the last couple of years, I bought a highly customised, $1,600 ThinkPad last year to edit video on and my girlfriend just bought a Yoga 2 Pro after a horrendous product and service experience with a Dell Inspiron 13. I’m permanently loyal to no brand and what I recommend changes frequently as quality and service ebb and flow. I’m a fan of Lenovo because their machines are reasonably priced, built very well, their support is better than average and that’s all been pretty consistent for a while. Until now, they also didn’t have a reputation for loading them up with crap software. They usually come with an anti-virus trial and a couple of internally developed maintenance utilities that are actually really good and which I use personally cause they do a great job.
Thankfully none of the models we own or that I’ve sold clients were affected by this, it seems to have been limited to machines sold in the last 6 months and only lower end and thus, lower margin consumer models. (UPDATE: I was mistaken, my girlfriend’s Yoga 2 Pro did have Superfish on it, I just missed it the first time. The Lenovo auto-removal utility sorted it but still, it was there on a nearly $2,000 machine.) But you know what I still had to deal with? A pile of clients e-mailing me in a panic going “I’m reading that this PC you sold me could be sending my banking information to hackers, what the Hell have you got me using?!” I had to spend a chunk of my day in my own damage control mode, assuring these people who I’ve built up strong trust with that their machine is clean. Due to that trust, they believe me but they’re still leery. That’s one small example of how this stupid, greedy move by Lenovo hasn’t hurt just their business but that of everyone who recommends their products and indeed, the PC platform as whole. I can only imagine some of the IT officers at massive organisations with tens of thousands of Lenovo machines in production and the awkward conversations they’re having with their CEOs.
This pisses me the fuck off. Anyone who knows me even a little bit knows that I am a huge fan of the PC platform and a proud anti-Apple fanboy. I think Apple products are overpriced, underpowered, I think OS X is an overdesigned mess to use and that the company is trading on fashion, not practicality and computers are supposed to be function over form. The PC platform offers choice: Choice in hardware, choice in manufacturers, choice to build your own, choice even in operating systems if you want. People keep saying Microsoft is a monopoly, yet you can only run OS X on Apple’s proprietary, largely non-upgradeable hardware (which has been repeatedly shown to be no more reliable or stable than a comparable PC) and Apple has swiftly curbstomped any attempt at competition on their own platform. Despite what Apple’s cult will tell you, I firmly believe modern PCs are cheaper, more diverse, better to use and easily as reliable as Macs, if not more so and I this is easily demonstrated.
However, I guarantee you that this latest foul up by the PC industry (because many see the PC as if they’re all made as a single collective) has given Apple fanboys another reason to dismiss the platform as unsafe and to tell their friends who are looking for a new computer that they should pay 20-40% more for a product that’s no better. How many potential customers has Lenovo just handed Apple on a silver platter? This hurts everyone who evangelises the PC platform and makes it harder and harder to confidently recommend it against a company and fanbase who is masterful at exploiting every slip up to their advantage. Say what you want about Apple and I can say plenty but this kind of shit doesn’t happen on Macs and a lot more people than you think are willing to pay more to not have to worry about it.
This is yet another example of hyper short term, “the next quarter is all that matters”, public company thinking. By using Superfish, Lenovo is literally making the experience of using their own products worse for the customers in order to pad their short-term profits. They’re not thinking about what the loss of good will is going to do to their brand in the long term or what it will do to the current Lenovo users who will never buy one of their systems against because of this. That’s for then and right now is all that matters. It’s pure, unadulterated disrespect for your customers and it’s an idiotic way to run a business. If Lenovo loses even one large enterprise customer over this, it will cost them more than they ever would have made off the Superfish deal. What good does that do the company or its investors? Even small operations like mine in quantity can hurt if they lose us as customers. I still love Lenovo hardware but for the next year, I guarantee you nearly every potential customer I try to recommend their stuff to is going to go “Isn’t that the brand that spies on you or something?” Despite being some of the best computers out there, I may have to consider switching to another brand that I don’t think as highly of. That doesn’t just hurt Lenovo’s business, it hurts mine and I sure as shit didn’t see a piece of that Superfish revenue.
Apple can teach the PC industry one big thing: People are willing to pay more for a quality product. I certainly am and so is everyone I know. Maybe instead of constantly racing to the bottom and trying to sell your systems on low price alone, why don’t you build top notch machines that you can sell for a higher price, get the good margins and not have to load up with garbage? You don’t have to charge a lot more. Hell, $50 more per machine probably gives you margins that you can only dream of and it still makes your stuff way cheaper than Apple. Why don’t you raise the price a bit, devote more effort to quality and sell them based on that? Take the line “We’re not the cheapest but we’re worth it because our stuff is great.” That’s how I market my Capital Tech Support business and it’s worked out very well for me. Don’t always cater to the bottom, ask for more and tell people why. More will buy in than you realise. Apple has proven this isn’t a hard concept to sell to people and you all have massive marketing teams. If they can’t sell that simple concept, sack their asses because they’re useless.
Given the overblown trouble Microsoft got in a number of years back for abusing manufacturers and other OEMs, this is probably going to sound controversial but bare with me. I honestly think that they need to start using their influence as the maker of the dominant operating system on the planet and start telling OEMs that this kind of bullshit isn’t acceptable. Microsoft and OEMs have a symbiotic relationship. Microsoft needs them to sell the hardware Windows comes on and the OEMs need Windows to make their machines viable to mainstream consumers. I don’t think it would be at all unreasonable for Microsoft to have a term in their agreements that says “You can’t pre-install any software that can be considered malicious or which severely degrades the consumer Windows experience.” I’m not talking about stuff like WildTangent games, OEM utilities or anti-virus trials, I’m talking stuff like Superfish which is considered malware. I think they should absolutely say that’s unacceptable and if OEMs violate that, they can face substantial fines and penalties, up to and including the loss of their right to sell Windows to certain market segments. Every scandal like this hurts the entire PC ecosystem from other OEMs, to resellers to indeed Microsoft themselves. Every potential PC sale that becomes a Mac sale is a lost sale of Windows.
Microsoft is trying to recover from the massive PR disaster of Windows 8. They’ve done the frankly epic mea culpa of offering every Windows 7 and Windows 8 user a free upgrade to Windows 10. They’re pulling out all the stops to keep current PC customers and lure new ones in by listening to what people want. Bullshit like this Superfish scandal is only causing further damage and hampering efforts they are going to great expense to do in order to win back the good will of consumers. I personally see nothing wrong with telling companies like Lenovo that they can’t actively engage in harming their customers if they want to sell Windows. Sure, they can’t go overboard with those restrictions, lest they become like Apple but saying you can’t pre-load spyware isn’t out of line. Who’s going to say no to that? No PC maker can afford to be without Windows and if Apple can control all aspects of both hardware and software on the Mac without being called a monopoly, this certainly can’t be either. Microsoft needs to take a leading role here and stop letting these greedy OEMs tarnish the brand of what I firmly believe is the best consumer operating system available right now.
This kind of this drives me up the wall and it’s emblematic of the level companies will disrespect their customers just to serve the current quarter. If you’re making so little money on even relatively expensive machines that you have to resort to spyware to be profitable, your business model is fucking broken and you need to fix it now. It’s not the job of your customers to fix your inability to command decent margins. Your CEOs are paid millions more per year than the people who actually design and build the computers to figure this out. If you can’t, then get the fuck out and put someone in charge with a sense of respect for customers. If Apple can figure out how to get people to pay more for better stuff, then surely someone in the entire PC industry can do the same. The PC is the best platform available and it’s not hard to convince people of that and make money at the same time.
You’re fucking this up for everyone Lenovo and making it harder and harder to support the PC every day. Get your shit together.