Will Ask toolbar install kill the reputation of free ZoneAlarm firewall

Yes I’m rather late to the game on this one. Honestly I haven’t written many security related articles lately for multiple reasons. But when I read that Zone Labs is now bundling the Ask toolbar with the free version of ZoneAlarm I figured it was time for me to chime in. Over the years Zone Labs has made several marketing decisions that in my opinion were less than thought out. Most of these decisions took place after CheckPoint purchased the company. My personal feeling is that the few people that fought against these types of things have long since left the company. Zone Labs like many other companies has never learned that word of mouth can kill a product. Which has always amazed me do to the fact that it is word of mouth that helped this company grow to what it is today.

Years ago it seemed as if Zone Labs was one of the few security software manufacturers that took customer feedback seriously. Then some marketing decisions were made that upset a very loyal portion of their customer base. Several products being discontinued was something that angered a very vocal minority of ZoneAlarm users. In years past there have been accusations of ZoneAlarm being spyware do to certain behaviors of the software. All this has been addressed in a professional manner over the years. The software in fact does not contain any type of spyware. However with this recent bundling of the Ask toolbar this topic will again come back into public debate. At various times Zone Labs has used their ZoneAlarm free software update process to market pay products. There was also an issue with the company using this same process to promote their anti-spyware solution. This was after the fact of customers stating they didn’t like this type of marketing when it was used in the past.

What this latest event shows is a great example of how corporations do not take customer feedback seriously. How many times does Zone Labs have to be told that their customers do not want to be marketed to in these ways? The Ask toolbar has had a checkered past according to some. Why even risk an association with a product that could hurt the already wounded reputation of your signature consumer product? Is the money really that good to support the long term damage to the product brand? While many may state I’m being sensationalist here keep a few factors in mind. I have been a long time ZoneAlarm firewall user. When the original ZoneAlarm free was released into beta testing I was one of the many original testers. I’m one of the few semi-active original Team Z members. I’ve also spent many years in popular online forums reading customer feedback. That last part is something very few Zone Labs employees can claim they have done. Which if you ask me is a cardinal sin that most marketing and management teams make. No one listens to customer feedback and balances it with product development decisions.

So once again we have the Zone Labs management making a less than stellar marketing decision. These types of decisions can in fact do major damage to a products reputation. Anyone who keeps an eye on security related issues could tell you that the ZoneAlarm firewall has a wounded reputation. This is mostly do to bad marketing decisions of the past. Some of it is related to performance issues that the company has never fully addressed. For those customers who are still using the free ZoneAlarm firewall the question now becomes one of trust. I’ve always taken a very negative view on any software company that tries to install any type of toolbar with a product install. Yes most reputable companies will give you the option to uncheck the install. ZoneAlarm free has this option available to users during the install process. However most people are fully aware that a large majority don’t pay attention during a software install. This is exactly how many machines become infected with various forms of spyware and malware. Over the years I’ve worked on a good number of machines where the customer had no idea where all the toolbars came from.

While I understand the need to find a way to make a free product profitable in some way. I have to question if this latest marketing move or some of the previous ones live up to the original intent of the ZoneAlarm free product. It’s my personal opinion that many of the marketing choices made previously go against some of the statements Gregor Freund has made in the past. To me it is very evident that Zone Labs management over the years has been trying to find a way to make a free product viable profit wise. While I don’t have any numbers to support my opinion. I think it would be safe to say that many ZoneAlarm free users have not taken the upgrade path to a paid ZoneAlarm product. I’d venture to say this has always been the hope of Zone Labs management and marketing. That the free product would entice customers towards the paid products. Originally the free version did do one thing very well. ZoneAlarm free helped Zone Labs gain a well known brand name and a solid reputation. Over the years this brand has suffered in the eyes of many. To me it is obvious that Zone Labs never felt that word of mouth is what got the company to where it is now. When in fact this is exactly why the brand took off.

With Zone Labs late to the game with a Vista compatible ZoneAlarm build. And with the company still not having a Vista 64 bit version out for consumers. You have to start to wonder why they would do something to further cause damage to their market share. All the company has done with this latest marketing strategy is earned more bad press. Something it really didn’t need. I still feel that Zone labs is a reputable security software producer. It’s my opinion that they offer one of the best consumer security products. But consumer trust is very fickle. Many in the security community will take Zone Labs to task for this latest blunder. Unfortunately I think this is well deserved. A true security company should never give the consumer a reason to question it’s integrity or intentions.

The end result here will be a good number of ZoneAlarm free users having an installed toolbar they don’t want. Do to the fact that the average person just doesn’t pay attention to what they are installing. Many also don’t feel they should have a reason to distrust a well known computer security company. Honestly they shouldn’t have to have a reason to do so. But things like a toolbar install would have me questioning the motives of the software developer. Which is exactly what I’m doing with my words above. As a long time ZoneAlarm supporter this recent decision by Zone Labs has me disheartened.

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