Thursday, June 23, 2016

Do You Remember the BonziBuddy?

Everything you could ever possibly want to know about the notorious adware app from the AOL days. Probably too much, to be honest. 

By: Jimbo X 

I’ve long believed that “nostalgia” has a 15-year incubation period. Granted, you can feel a flurry of emotions about things that transpired five or 10 years ago, but I don’t think that you can really feel those whimsical pangs of days gone by until at least a decade and a half passes you by. An old commercial from four years ago or an old video game from eight years ago are just outdated things, but a 15-year-old advertisement or consumer product? All of a sudden, its ephemeral association with your own history makes it a transcendent object. It’s no longer just some old thing … now, it’s a vintage relic of yesteryear.

As such, we’re just now getting to the point where early 2000s culture can be properly designated as “nostalgic.” This is especially interesting, since it is the first arbitrarily-defined “quindecimester” to entail a heavy volume of Internet-borne evanescence.

Which means we’ve finally gotten to that cultural tipping point were new media things like AOL chat rooms, Real Player and early flash-based gaming can be considered legitimate historical subjects.

Amid those unforgettable first encounters with and malware-baiting “free music” Napster alternatives, at least one sidebar in the Big Book of Early 200s Nostalgia ought to be dedicated to the BonziBuddy – one of the more famous (and, in some circles, infamous) downloadable desktop apps of George W.’s first term of office.

How to describe the BonziBuddy to all you young 'uns? Well, conceptually, the adware was kinda’ like Siri, except it didn’t do anywhere near as much. Oh, and you couldn’t talk directly to it, although you could type up inquiries and hope for some sort of quasi-useful retort. But by and large, the download was really only valuable because it served as a low, low-tech text-to-speech translator. Yeah, I know all of this shit must feel downright antediluvian to the children of the iPad, but back then, it was still cutting-edge stuff. The program also did a few other things, but before we get into that, some history.

When Microsoft Office ’97 launched, it came with this feature called Office Assistant. Basically, it was this annoying little cartoon paperclip that would pop up on screen while you were working on homework assignments and clutter your desktop with all sorts of unsolicited advice on paragraphical indentation and adding MS Paint artwork to your research papers. Although the feature is looked upon with incredible disdain today, way back when, it was apparently popular enough to warrant legitimate DLCas an array of Office Assistant skins made their rounds on the Internet – among them, a little green parrot named “Peedy.”

Enter upstart Bonzi Software, who in 1999, released a freeware program that effectively served the same purpose as Microsoft’s Office Assistant project, albeit with the addition of text-to-speech functionality. Ultimately, this was a rather ballsy move on Bonzi Software’s part, seeing as how the software not only kinda-sorta-not-legally “borrowed” the technology from the old Lernout & Hauspie Microsoft Speech API 4.0 suite, but featured “Peedy” as its official avatar.

Rest assured, I am just as curious as you are as to what the "save you money" tab does. Curious, and very suspicious.

Although I haven’t been able to uncover conclusive proof that MS threatened legal action, the wrath of Bill Gates must’ve nonetheless spooked the suits at Bonzi Software real good, as it was less than a year before they retired “Peedy” and replaced it with their own proprietary mascot – the eponymous BonziBuddy, which was stylized as a cherubic, purple gorilla.

Looking back on it, none of the program’s features can be considered all that remarkable – even considering the state of technology at the time frame. Still, if you were a junior high schooler circa 2000, it was pretty hard to not be intrigued by the app. I mean, it was free after all, and like any eighth grader has the ability to say “no” to a downloadable app (especially one that was touted as being a "$40 value," despite seemingly no traces of evidence indicating there was ever a retail version of the program sold anywhere at anytime) that allows him to make his parents’ PC say all sorts of crude and ribald things via a cartoon monkey. The pull, frankly, was irresistible.

The BonziBuddy was pretty much a case example in trying-way-too-hard preteen marketing 101. As soon as you downloaded the little sucker, the eponymous spokes-ape made his big debut on your desktop by literally surfing across your screensaver. From there, he (I’m assuming it’s a he) would start yapping via word balloon, which was accompanied by that unforgettable, warbled voice. There was a bit of an effeminate twang to the character’s brogue; so basically, he(?) sounded like a seven-foot tall mechanical drag queen (or Janet Reno, if there's any kind of difference there.)

As far as the app’s functionality, the text-to-speech tool was the big selling point, but it wasn’t its only feature. You could also ask him to relay obscure facts back to you, send pre-emojis in emails, manage downloads, sing (I vividly recall two songs – that “Day-zee, day-zee” song from 2001 and another ditty I vaguely remember but, for the life of me, can’t recite a single lyric) and look up stuff online. And that’s where BonziBuddy showed his shadowy underbelly.

Of course, we all know the BonziBuddy is shameless adware now. Before 9\11, however, we were a much more trusting society, and the idea that our beloved desktop monkey helper was actually a Trojan horse for surreptitious data collection and sneaky backdoor downloads never really crossed our minds. Alas, it is now blindingly obvious to anyone that the whole thing was a big ruse that preyed upon naïve Intraweb users – specifically, children.

For starters, the titular BonziBuddy wasn’t the only thing you downloaded to your hard drive. The app also downloaded a proprietary Bonzi Software toolbar to your browser, except they never told you that in the fine print. On top of that, the BonziBuddy itself had a bad habit of obstructing your browsing, popping up while you were trying to read IGN and filling the screen with all sorts of ads (including a few pioneering scareware ads that were designed to fool users into thinking MS dialog boxes had been opened.)

The app also launched this thing called BonziWorld, which was a jungle-themed central hub of sorts that redirected you to a bunch of Bonzi Software pages (most notably, for the company’s other big-seller, Internet ALERT.) The download also had the unstated after-effect of resetting your homepage to the company’s central site, triggering unwanted pop-up ads and – the biggie – tracking user web browsing information. Hilariously, a 2001 update tacked on another new feature – irony of ironies, an alleged “virus” checker.

Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before the app wound up in court. A 2002 class action lawsuit forced Bonzi Software to fess up to using scareware ads to deceive consumers and, representing the death blow to the app and software firm as a whole, the FTC slammed them in 2004 with a $75,000 fine for collecting data on underage users and not providing the federally mandated consent forms to their parents. The application was overhauled shortly thereafter, but it was for naught; the company would go belly up before the year was over.

Surely, those "recommended" sites have to be on the up and up, right? After all, there is NO reason to be wary of software that uses the phrase "best friend" with literal quotation marks included. NONE AT ALL. 

The internet being the wide-open chasm it is, however, users were able to download the BonziBuddy – or at least reach his central website – as late as 2008. Since then, however, pretty much all vestiges of the app’s existence have been scrubbed from the Web (well, except for the smart-alecky memetic recollections of salty forum dwellers, apparently.)

Outside of firing up your old Windows 2000-powered PC from way back when, it’s pretty much impossible to re-experience the BonziBuddy phenomenon. Granted, there are a few videos out there – and thanks to the Internet Archive, you can even view the old app website just the way it was in 2000 (which allows you to download some kind of file from the old site with the suffix .exe, but I ain't brave enough to run it) – but just gawping at the damn thing isn’t the same thing as actually fiddling around with it. You can watch speed runs on YouTube all day, but watching Ninja Gaiden II on the NES isn’t the same thing as playing it. The same holds true for the BonziBuddy – unless you lived it, you’ll never be able to fully comprehend it.

Of course, you can’t really evaluate the BonziBuddy phenomenon without taking a look at its creators – Joe and Jay Bonzi of San Luis Obispo, Calif. As it turns out, Bonzi Software was just one of their many ventures in the early 1990s and late 2000s, which also included something called (no relation to the Ted Turner-owned TruTV, I assume) and Bonzi Aviation, Inc. Per legal filings, it appears the duo spent a bulk of their post-Bonzi careers working for a marketing firm called 2KDirect, LLC, whose subsidiaries include the digital ad network iPROMTEu.

As the ultimate ephemeral media platform – where videos, photos, text and even entire websites can disappear overnight – semi-obscure internet nostalgia a’la the BonziBuddy represent our newest form of cultural currency. While possessing virtually no financial value, recollections of pre-Myspace advents of the like serve as a time capsule to a bygone era, giving us a firmer grasp of the times than even the “legitimate” media of the era. The same way scores and scores of channels on YouTube are dedicated to commercials from the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s really only a matter of time until before-Facebook web ephemera becomes the next big thing in “retro.”

At the time, BonziBuddy was just another novel attraction on a fledgling media platform. A decade ago, it was a nearly forgotten antiquity exemplifying the faults and flaws of the early days of the Internet. But now? It’s a bona-fide part of American pop cultural history, a shared emblem of an entire, technology-weaned generation and – perhaps above all else – a reminder of a less complicated, somewhat more innocuous society untainted by the omnipresent stain of reality television, social media vanity and the ubiquitous – and frankly, inescapable – gravity of the mobile-Internet-sphere.

And malware or not, goddamn, is that little gorilla just as adorable now as he was back when TRL was still a thing

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