Novatech's former marketing boss and consultant Tim LeRoy shares his view on Lenovo's pre-loaded Superfish bloatware furore.
Superfish is a loud warning for the whole industry – from our customers.
Lenovo set themselves up for a deserved kicking with the Superfish fubar but the whole industry should be muttering ‘but for the grace of God…’
This debacle highlights two big interlinked issues that the tech industry has failed to address: useless and unwanted pre-installed apps (bloatware), and a cavalier attitude to user behaviour data.
One of the most baffling things about Superfish is that it makes no commercial sense. No one buys a Lenovo device for an awesome shopping experience, just as no one buys a Sony phone for the Walkman app, or a Samsung tablet for the social sharing app.
Every version of Windows and Office has come with a hundredweight of superfluous applications. So why do manufacturers and resellers insist on adding bloatware that no one wants, nor uses?
The best apps of the last decade - from Skype and Dropbox to Snapchat and Chrome - have been free, so it’s not as if manufacturers are giving the customer a great deal by pre-installing their own sub-par versions.
Who was asking ‘is this what the customer wants? How does the customer benefit?’
One of the joys of the iPhone was that the OS seemed to be almost invisible and it only came with a handful of beautiful, useful apps. They appeared to be ours and it was up to us to install anything we fancied, and to arrange everything in its right place.
For years the PC industry has put profitable licencing deals before customer experience, and that’s part of the reason Apple gained so much ground.
"This is not just one brand’s failure to respect customers’ privacy and security, but the industry doesn’t seem to have clicked that ‘big data’ is made up of real humans’ lives."
The second part of the problem is that when it comes to our digital lives, we don’t want to be treated like idiots. No one wants to be a mug. We’re vaguely aware that our online behaviour is being tracked, and that we’ve sold our digital souls in return for free apps and services.
We reluctantly trust that they’ll only use our data to give us better experiences, but despite that Faustian pact we don’t want to be actively spied upon and we most certainly don’t want to be conned or put at risk.
This is not just one brand’s failure to respect customers’ privacy and security, but the industry doesn’t seem to have clicked that ‘big data’ is made up of real humans’ lives. Humans who most definitely don’t want to be diluted down into binary food to feed hungry shopping search algorithms.
This faceless data seems anonymous until you serve it back to the customer from whence it came, and then it becomes creepy. A big part of the problem is that it often doesn’t really work. Ads that follow me around the net for a product I’ve just bought remind me that I’ve sold my digital soul and that the tech industry Mephistopheles is claiming his pound of flesh.
The industry needs to remember that the hardware belongs to the customers and what goes on it is totally up to them. Likewise, transforming user behaviour into digital insights is a marketing holy grail, but unless we remember that that data is very human, we’ll never create anything that works for the customer. And they’re the only ones who matter.
About the author
Tim LeRoy was formerly Head of Marketing at Novatech and now runs his own consultancy, DirtMeetsTheWater.
Following the initial story, Lenovo has explained itself and a US customer is now suing both Lenovo and Superfish. Lenovo's CTO Peter Hortensius has also written an open letter to customers.