Pop-ups Are Coming to Screens Near You

Advertisers are rolling out a new kind of pop-up ad that evades blocking software. Executive Tech columnist Brian Livingston looks at the pending counter-moves by pop-up blocker companies.
I wrote in last week's Executive Tech that Unicast, a New York-based advertising agency, had developed a new online pop-up format that could evade the "pop-up blockers" used by many companies.

The ad firm has designed an innovative series of 30-second, full-motion video commercials for clients such as Pepsi, Honda, and Warner Brothers. When a PC user visits high-traffic sites such as About.com, ESPN, or MSN, a video file is silently downloaded in the background. After the download is complete, the video expands to full-screen size and starts playing automatically the next time the user happens to switch from one window to another.

Your company may find these new "top-of-desktop" videos to be a terrific form of advertising. Or you may find them to be a terrific waste of time for your employees — as they watch automotive ads and movie trailers instead of doing whatever you're paying them to do.

Pop-up blocker companies are planning to strike back. I predict the war for control of your monitors has just begun.

Now See This — Videos In Your Face

I learned several fascinating things about the new, pop-up videos after interviewing Unicast executives and conducting my own experiments:

Java-based videos. Unicast uses Java to download its 2 MB files in Windows Media Player format. "We use a Java applet technology versus what everybody else does with JavaScript," says senior vice president John dePar. The firm's technology ensures that a file has downloaded completely before it plays. This gives the resulting video a smooth playback, even at full-screen size, as opposed to real-time or "streaming" video, which can be noticeably uneven.

Virtual machine required. The ad firm's video troubleshooting page points out that PC users must be using Windows, Internet Explorer, and Windows Media Player 7 or higher in order to see the video commercials. More importantly, the user must have either Microsoft's VM (virtual machine) or Sun's competing Java VM installed and enabled. But Microsoft, due to a legal dispute, did not include a VM in Windows XP, except as an on-demand download, and ceased those downloads after July 10, 2002. So some PC users may not be able to run Java applets automatically.

The problem with plug-ins. In testing Unicast's video commercials, I found they wouldn't play under the stricter Internet security settings that are typically invoked by Microsoft's new Outlook 2003 e-mail program. I was able to permit or block the pop-ups' playback by changing an Internet Explorer (IE) setting known as "Run ActiveX controls and plug-ins." This setting can easily be customized by any user via IE's Tools, Internet Options, Security menu.

If an end user can change settings that allow or deny the running of video pop-ups, the developers of commercial pop-up blocker software should be able to accomplish this, too. Funny thing — that's exactly what two of the most popular utility publishers say they're already doing.

Pop-Up Stopper Is On The Case

When asked about Unicast's new pop-up technology, Nick Skrepetos, who represents the highly-rated Pop-Up Stopper program, said a forthcoming version of his company's software would definitely be able to prevent video commercials from appearing on users' screens. Skrepetos is the president and co-founder of Panicware.com, the maker of Pop-Up Stopper. The software was the No. 1 download from PC World Magazine's Web site at one point in 2003.

The current version of Pop-Up Stopper is release 1.6. Skrepetos said the next major upgrade would be available by the 2nd quarter of 2004. In addition to being able to block Unicast's pop-up videos, he claims, the new release will also block "all the new style of ads that use Flash, such as the MSN ads that have a butterfly hovering over the screen."

WinSettings Plans an Upgrade As Well

Another pop-up blocker program, WinSettings, is also scheduled for an upgrade with Unicast's pop-up videos in its sights. The utility has been rated 5 out of 5 stars by such software reviewers as PC Magazine, ZDNet, and Tucows.

Yao Chu, president of FileStream.com, which makes WinSettings, said in an interview that anything the security configuration options of IE can control, the next version of WinSettings could control also.

He added that PC users who don't have the latest patches for Windows Media Player face security issues from .wmv files. These files contain video information for the player but can also cause it to run unexpected commands. "For anything to come in and play itself, that's very, very scary," Chu said. "That could be something malicious, with that extension."

Conclusion

The war between the pop-up blockers and the pop-up sellers doesn't look as though it'll be ending any time soon. The best thing you can do is educate yourself about pop-up technology — and decide how much of it you think should be running automatically on your company's computers.






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