Has Inquisitor gone scurrilous?

Hmm. Mac developers are generally a cuddly lot. David Watanabe is a Mac developer, but I don't think you could call him cuddly. That doesn't matter a damn, generally, because he makes great apps like Acquisition and Inquisitor. Except, now Inquisitor has gone a bit o_O. Searching for Nikon lens reviews last night, I noticed that Amazon links came up first:



"Gah, Amazon has been fiddling to get to the top of Google," I thought. However, if you search on Google itself, Amazon isn't anywhere near the top:



So I searched for "Nikon lens reviews -amazon" in Inquisitor. The link stayed right where it was. This is where the smell of cash wafts in. Amazon has a programme called affiliates, which pays a credit to websites who send them traffic that turns into sales. It's pretty common now: if you pre-ordered Leopard from a particular link on Daring Fireball, John Gruber got a cut, and all Amazon links on Metafilter give Mathowie a cut. Could what Inquisitor is doing be related? Search for "Sony": Amazon is first hit, but only in Inquisitor – not on Google itself. Search for "Nintendo": Amazon is first hit, again only in Inquisitor. "Microsoft"? "Xbox"? Yup.

But are the Inquisitor links going to Amazon Affiliates? You can't tell from Safari, because if you follow one of them, the address bar will show a regular Amazon location. Inquisitor hides the URL it is going to in this case -- it just says "amazon.com" where it usually shows the link. There's nothing on the user side that lets you know what's happening. A sniffer app, however, can see everything that happens over your network connection. Here's what wireshark saw when I clicked on an Amazon hit from Inquisitor:


A connection from my Mac to an Amazon URL. But Safari shows:



The URL that Inquisitor pulled *is* an Amazon affiliates address. See the "tag=exoscience" on the end? That's the username of the affiliates account. Google "exoscience" … and yup, second entry: David Watanabe.

I've emailed David to ask him what's up, but he hasn't replied yet. To be honest, this feels a bit underhand. Sure, Inquisitor is free now, but it wasn't always (and I'm one of those who paid for it). And he's obviously looking into other ways of making money, like a now-removed promotion for free Acquisition (it was here but has vanished since this morning!) if you sign up to scuzzy free offers. All that's fine, because you get a choice. Same with the links on Daring Fireball, or Metafilter.

But with this one, there's no warning anywhere that anything like this will be done: no user agreement, no licence, no terms of service. Inquisitor hides the affiliates URLs it is going to (and it does go to associates URLs on every Amazon hit, not just its inserted ones), so in no sense is this opt-in.

The most worrying bit, I suppose, is that because the majority of my Google searching goes through Inquisitor, I have to trust DW not to do anything scurrilous with it. It's hard enough trusting Google, but David's already got form on the skeezy side of the fence and that makes everything Inquisitor does suspicious.

Amazon, I'm generally OK with -- if we had a choice! -- but what other link referral programmes are running in there that we don't know about? (See below for an update: it's also doing the Apple store). When I was making these screenshots, I noticed that Inquisitor is also calling out to 208.97.149.20 (a Dreamhost address) for the URL /safari/vc_version.php. I assume it's just a version check (as mentioned in Preferences) ... but is it?

Like I said: hmm

Update:I cliped to TUAW about this too, where a commenter points out that Inquisitor also hijacks P2P-relates searches with links to Acquisition, and as Joe Eversole discovers, it does with the Apple Store too, through some lot calling themselves Commission Junction. See Joe's blog for the full list of terms being hijacked. Saddam Hussein? Cor.

Update 2: David has posted about this on his blog, claiming that the sponsored ads were "public knowledge". Which, going by absence of evidence and the universally surprised reaction, they weren't. Doing sneaky things in public is not the same as making them public knowledge. I searched everywhere to see if this had been documented. It hadn't.

I'm not sure he's getting the reason people are upset, either, as he goes on to defend the running of ads. Would anyone have had a problem with the ads if they'd said "ad" on them? I doubt it. Would they have minded if they'd been told about his new "idealistic" revenue model? No. But it was snuck in quietly, which is a problem. To then be hurt at a negative and cynical reaction is ... well, a bit naive frankly.

It's a pity for him. He does make best-in-class apps: there's nothing else like Inquisitor, and his p2p and rss clients look gorgeous and work beautifully, which is a big feat and not to be dismissed because "they're just wrappers for open-source engines". Still, wherever you go he has a hideous reputation, mostly owing to his (sometimes understandably) terse customer support. But if you're going to act the hardman, you can't then go "aw shucks, don't be mean, I work so hard for you guys" when you're caught out in a deceit and get an inbox full of vitriol.

Update 3: ... but now it's fixed! Coo ur. The latest version of Inquisitor now not only highlights affiliate links, it allows you to turn them off entirely. Michty. Classy response.

Update 4 ... well, not quite entirely -- links to other Watanabe apps remain at the top of some searches. Ho hum.

12 comments:

umijin said...

1. I was one of those guys that paid $5 for Inquisitor when it first came out. I was pretty pissed that Watanabe made it a free product without offering refunds to those that purchased it. Now this crap really irks me.

Yes, Inquisitor is useful and helps my browsing - no doubt. But there should be some disclosure to customers.

2. The developer, Mr. Watanabe, is a jerk. I was an early adopter and paid user of Acquisition - his first major software offering. Nearly every support email I sent him was returned with a rude response, if at all. I've had luck in pushing him with follow up emails, but his attitude has not changed even after his applications have garnered him some success.

Recently, Acquisition got a major upgrade, but no warning was made to users that they had to pay for it in the automatic upgrade notice that popped up with the software. Furthermore, the latest version wipes out your saved searches and partial downloads without warning. What kind of nonsense is this?

3. You would think that a developer with such talent would learn that support for paid customers is important and that at least a minimum of courtesy is required. Unfortunately for Mr. Watanabe, he has failed to learn this over the years.

The fact that he is potentially making money off Inquisitor searches is just further indication that Watanabe thinks of his self first, and his customers last.

Sure, every developer should make some profit from good products - we all agree with that. And Watanabe makes some nice software IMHO. But that alone doesn't justify his actions.

mkeefe said...

He places a small (dark) note on the main page, but I for one won't have it.. action: *uninstall*

Jamie said...

I gotta admit. I think half of the stuff David has been accused of is people being pissy about misunderstandings and typical mob mentality.

Kill the guy he did something bad once! No I don't know much about it but I read about it somewhere!

Lets always assume from now on that he means something evil.

Grow up people.

He builds beautiful software. That it is built on top of open source software is of no consequence.

That he ads affiliate links to a free product doesn't is virtually a non issue.

The sense of entitlement some people have is just beyond my understanding.

Aaron said...

I've got an xdelta patch that kills off the inserted results and affiliate strings in URLs. It also changes the "Inquisitor" text you get by default in all of your Safari windows in the search field, it just has "Search" now. Mostly a personal annoyance and I wouldn't call that part evil at all.

inquisitorevilbegone


It's made with xdelta3, usage works like this:

xdelta3 -d -s old_file my_patch new_file

Aaron said...

Oops, to make it clear, that's a patch against the InquisitorCore binary, which typically resides in

/Library/InputManagers/Inquisitor/Inquisitor.bundle/Contents/Resources/InquisitorCore.bundle/Contents/MacOS

It's probably a bad idea to trust random strangers on the internet like me patching something like this. A compromised Safari input manager hack could probably kill your dog. If you're nervous you might want to apply the patch and compare the changes in something like HexFiend yourself. It only NULs out some terms and URLs, x's out some affiliate strings, and changes an amazon string to be obvious it's been inserted (from when I was testing it), and changes the Inquisitor text to Search.

Tiger said...

Thank you for letting the community know that Inquisitor covertly participates in affiliate programs.

Mr. Watanabe should disclose this fact on the Inquisitor web site or in the software itself. I'm surprised he doesn't understand that secretly messing with search results is a problem.

I have no problem with Inquisitor's participation in the affiliate programs per se. Mr. Watanabe deserves remuneration for his great software. It's the lack of transparency that's the problem.

umijin said...

@jamie - My bad experiences with Watanabe weren't because of anything `pissy` I did or asked. I reported bugs or problems using software (Acquisition) or with licensing and his responses were either insulting or standoffish. I could understand it if I was not a paid user of Acquisition - you know someone that used the app with the re-occurring nag-notice. But I have paid for his apps, even paid for Inquisitor. And my experience with him is not unusual or unique.

I agree he makes nice apps - or at least I like them when they work.

Unfortunately for Mr. Watanabe, it's not a bunch of people ganging up on him. In this case, where there is smoke, there is fire. And if anyone needs to grow up, it is Watanabe.

austinnate said...

I have to say that I have NEVER gotten a response from ANY e-mails that I have sent. I had to go to my credit card company and have them refund my money after a 30 day stretch where he never replied to a single support request!
I'm OK with the whole Inquisitor issue my issues are with how he treats people that have PAID FULL PRICE for his software and he then leaves you in the cold.....
David.... PLEASE IMPROVE YOUR CUSTOMER SERVICE/SUPPORT.... Or people will get wise and bypass your programs.....

ncoom said...

He screwed me too. I bought Acquisition, and then mistakenly downloaded and tried to install a newer version that wouldn't run on my computer. Unfortunately it wiped out my old paid copy. I wrote him several times, but he told me it was my fault, and he wasn't going to do anything about making an old copy available.
In short- despite having paid for it, I have no functioning software. Not a happy camper.

jamesconroyfinn said...

I only use Inquisitor for custom search engines within the Safari search bar.

If Dave wants to make money that's fine with me. I've paid for Acquisition, Xtorrent and Inquisitor in the past.

I have iChatted him once or twice and sent him a couple of emails. He is curt, obnoxious and rude.

ncoom said...

I wouldn't say he's done something bad 'once'. A software mistake of his also messed me up.
I'd paid for the program, but he never answered an email, helped, or took any responsibility. He could have EASILY fixed my problem, but didn't.
I'd say: stay away. Why get burned again?

ottovelo said...

I do understand your probs with him... Now he is not updating inquisitorX anymore for Safari 4 on Snow leopard. I'm starting to search for a good alternative...