Back in 2000, right around when a slew of fancy-pants startups followed each other off the dot-com cliff, an endearing purple gorilla began making his way onto the desktops of countless Internet users.
If you’re old enough to remember Bonzi Buddy, you’ll recall that he was one of the Internet’s early virtual assistants (think Microsoft’s Clippy, except for browsing around the web). Upon logging in to your computer, Bonzi would swing onto the screen. For the time, his interaction capabilities were pretty impressive, especially from a free piece of software. He was part-search engine, part-email client, part-encyclopedia, part-downloads manager, part-deals finder (sound familiar?).
Bonzi was your loyal guide to the confusing jungle that was the World Wide Web. Or that was the thought, at least.
Today, if you search for “Bonzi Buddy” on Google, just from the first page of results, you get: “trojan adware,” “stupid spyware program,” and “not as cuddly as he seems.” Starting from its humble beginnings in 1999, the BonziBuddy software promised us a better Web experience. But its memory-intensive arrival onto our desktops slowed our computers down. What more, it tracked browsing activity, awkwardly recommended other sites to check out, and threw pop-up ads that mimicked actual Windows alerts. Bonzi was in cahoots with the world of online advertising. By 2003, media backlash and a class action lawsuit relegated Bonzi to the fringes of KnowYourMeme.com.
Adware from the Early Aughts
The early 2000s saw a significant rise in these types of “trojan adware” apps. It became a relatively common practice at the time for “free” apps like Kazaa or Limewire to nonchalantly bundle their installation with adware that tracked your browsing behavior and fed you ads. The idea of tracking user behavior online and using that data for targeted ads was still in relative infancy back then, which can partially explain the awkwardness (and creepiness) of the software that tried to do it.
Remember that this was right at the turn of the century. Monetizing attention and eyeballs online just as the Internet started to go mainstream got advertisers, brands, and the media industry pretty pumped up.
But as Bonzi Buddy and his merry band of friends began pissing users off with pop-ups and other unwanted nuisances, the idea of “adware” disappeared from the public eye. According to Google Trends, it looks like this term hit its peak around 2004 and only recently has started its slow climb back to relevance. Meanwhile, adtech’s been rebranded as the sexier-sounding “targeted advertising” :
Of course, these days you don’t have to go too far to experience or hear about targeted ads. A single visit to Harrys.com might yield a relative barrage of grooming-related ads on Twitter. Facebook itself plans on drawing from a wider range of user data to make its targeted advertising more effective. These all seem to be doing what BonziBuddy so clumsily tried to do back in the early 2000s.
A few months ago, entrepreneur and investor Hiten Shah wrote a brief post on the technology hype cycle. In it, he touches upon how quickly things gain steam, lose steam, then begin their slow climb back to relevance. “Agile development, lean startup, SaaS and so many more are the norm now,” he wrote, “In just a few short years each of these ideas went from concept to becoming the norm.” To illustrate this concept, Hiten shared a Gartner graph that has become pretty popular in some circles:
Through this lens, some splashy new technologies might inevitably march into the mainstream — from early promise to ugly adolescence and to eventual quiet, tacit acceptance. Every new tech startup (sure, we can call BonziBuddy a startup) is merely a small player in the larger narrative surrounding the underlying technology trying to make it big.
This reality is difficult to sense on the day-to-day, but when viewing new ideas with this historical perspective, you can’t help but think BonziBuddy was a case of the baby being thrown out with the bathwater. Its targeted advertising product was just too early and too primitive. But it paved the way for the AdSense, cookies-tracking, social data mining world of today. The very technologies that users hated 15 years ago are now common practice.
Whether or not this is at all a good thing is an entirely different discussion.