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Alon Melcher, CEO of Oak Interactive, says he is being hurt twice by Microsoft. The first time was about a year ago, when the first service package for Window XP added a frame to the pop-up windows that Oak makes, and took away their clean look, which differentiated them from regular pop-up advertisement windows. The second time will apparently be this coming April, when Microsoft will offer its second downloadable package of services for Windows XP - a collection of updates and patches for the most popular operating system in the world.

This time, Microsoft's updates will not change the appearance of Melcher's technology, but will instead make it disappear altogether. The updates are also supposed to improve the surfing experience, to hit the online advertising world with tremendous shock waves and force advertisers and programmers to adapt to the new reality.

Along with various security updates that Microsoft is happy to discuss, the package of updates will also include a tool that will be assimilated by the Explorer browser and enable it to eliminate pop-up ad windows without the use of software or toolbars from other companies.

The technology on which the new tool is based is not revolutionary - software for preventing pop-up windows has been around since those windows began popping up - but the effect will be tremendous.

Analysts estimate that currently only 20 percent of web surfers are equipped with software for eliminating pop-ups, because in order to obtain such software, surfers have to know where to find it. The addition of this feature to the browser used by 66.3 percent of Internet users, without their having to do anything except accept the upgrading of their system, will dramatically change the situation.

In their current format, the three types of Oak Interactive's pop-up windows - JumpSlide, JumpAd and JumpOut - will be blocked by any standard tool for blocking pop-ups, and will presumably also be blocked by the new tool that will be assimilated by Explorer.

"I have already begun to feel that Microsoft has something personal against me," says Melcher, who does not deny that Microsoft's plans worry him. "We are already working on solutions that we hope will help us when the time comes."

The plague of pop-up windows, one of the three most annoying side effects of the Internet (along with viruses and junk e-mail), first hit computer screens at the beginning of the high-tech bubble in the mid-1990s.

Since the conventional banner advertisements did not provide advertisers and site owners with the desired results, and since only an amazingly simple code was required to make more and more windows pop up, the pop-ups became a nuisance - but also a tremendous growth engine for the online advertising industry.

According to a study conducted at the beginning of this year by Advertising.com, people click on pop-up ads 13 times more often than on banners (a significant difference for site owners, who receive payment for every time a surfer clicks on an ad at the site). It is therefore no wonder that the pop-ups are proliferating. According to data collected by Nielsen//Net Ratings between August and October of this year, surfers saw 19.6 billion pop-ups out of the 226.4 billion ads to which they were exposed. This is 7.3 percent of all Internet advertising, whereas in the April through June period, pop-ups constituted just 3 percent.

As the use of pop-ups spread, they became one of the worst nuisances on the Internet, and software programs and tools began appearing, offering to prevent them from popping up. At first, there were specific programs, such as Pop-up Stopper and Stopzilla. Then companies like Symantec began adding pop-up blockers to their software packages, along with the anti-virus, e-mail filter and firewall tools.

About two years ago, following repeated complaints by customers who viewed the pop-ups as an infringement on the quality of service they were receiving, the second largest Internet service provider in the world, EarthLlink, started a new trend and began offering its subscribers a service for blocking junk e-mail, viruses and pop-ups. America Online and others followed suit.

In the past few months, two more giant companies have joined the war - Google and Yahoo. Their search toolbars, which can be incorporated into browsers, stop pop-ups and have gained popularity. Google says that millions of Internet users have downloaded its toolbar. The motivation for Google and Yahoo to include a blocker in their search toolbars, however, was based not solely on their desire to provide surfers with an efficient service free of charge. Both companies also want to attract more advertisers to the contextual ads in their search engines, at the expense of pop-up advertising. With these search engines, when a surfer enters a particular search item, such as "digital camera," for example, he receives the results of the search as well as sidebars with links purchased by advertisers.

Now, with Microsoft offering a similar blocking tool for the most popular browser in the world, the question is whether the software giant was motivated by "the desire to meet the consumers' needs," as claimed by the company's official spokesman, or whether another motivating factor is involved. A critical blow to the pop-ups, if not backed up by additional steps, will cause the en masse migration of advertisers to Google and Yahoo - something in which Microsoft is not interested, to put it mildly.

In this context, it is difficult not to notice the growing comments by sources at Microsoft on the subject of search engines, the putting out of feelers (denied last week by Bill Gates himself) for the purchase of Google, and more. It is hard to believe that Microsoft is interested in destroying the pop-up market for purely altruistic reasons, and is therefore quite likely that this process will end with the purchase of a large search engine or the launching of an independent one. Questions sent to Microsoft headquarters in this regard received no response.

One company that will be affected by the assimilation of the pop-up blocker in the new Explorer is Ad4Ever, the Israeli company responsible for the invention that vies respectably for the title of "Most Bothersome Technology for Web Surfers." Ad4Ever's product is called TopLayer and is familiar to anyone who surfs the net. The technology developed by this Ramat Gan company about four years ago does not open a new browser window but rather adds another layer to the web page, blocking the surfer's view of the desired page's content and forcing the surfer to look at the ad on the top layer. The X button that surfers have to click in order to close that top layer is usually hidden and the surfer is forced to spend long seconds searching for it before he can return to viewing the content in which he is really interested.

The difference between TopLayer technology and the technology on which the pop-ups are based is that the lines of code that make the top layers of sites surface are an integral part of the HTML code in which those sites are composed, so it is very difficult to eliminate just those lines.

This means that while the companies that provide advertisers with campaigns of pop-ups will be hit hard by Microsoft's new update, Ad4Ever is actually liable to gain. In a world devoid of pop-ups the Israeli technology will be the only one that will present surfers with ads that are not regular banners on Internet pages.

Ad4Ever President Sivan Tafla says that the software that eliminates regular pop-ups are actually "blind" to the Israeli technology. This is because they do not know how to distinguish between the regular content of a web page and the layer that floats above it. Sivan notes, however, that even without the integration of a pop-up blocker in the new Explorer, advertisers are beginning to move away from the classic pop-ups and are switching to ads like those created by Ad4Ever.

"The pop-up window," says Tafla, "is much more aggressive than TopLayer. Pop-ups open automatically, don't close on their own and other windows often open when a surfer tries to close one window. It is very important to our clients that the surfers who are exposed to their ads will not become antagonistic toward them. We do not intervene in the design of the ads, but rather give our clients tips that are supposed to help us all. Every ad, for example, has to have a clear Close button."

Tafla feels that the Internet advertising market, with or without the pop-ups, is going to continue growing and she believes that other formats of ads will become more prominent.

"The technological teams at the companies that make the pop-ups are sitting right now and racking their brains for a way to make pop-ups that cannot be blocked yet," figures Tafla.

She is right. That is exactly what Melcher and Oak Interactive, like creators of competing technologies elsewhere in the world, are doing at this very moment. Too much money is hanging in the balance and no one is about to give up without a struggle.

The first Israeli pop-up blocker toolbar

A very new competitor on the pop-up blocker software market is Rimmertech, whose PopOut toolbar was launched just last week and includes a blocker for regular pop-ups as well as those activated by file-sharing programs such as Kazaa.

"We decided to do what Google and Yahoo are doing, but better," says company CEO Elad Natanson. "We know how to stop both the pop-up windows on web pages and those activated by file-sharing programs, and we are the first ones in the world to do this," he adds.

The company's Web site indicates that since last Tuesday the search toolbar has been downloaded from the site (www.popout.co.il) over 14,000 times. The toolbar also provides Internet users with content and links that match their surfing habits - something that raises serious questions regarding the preservation of the surfers' privacy.

"The idea is to take advantage of the fact that the surfer shows an interest in a certain field," explains Natanson, "and that there are parties that are interested in selling the surfer something in his field of interest."

Natanson tries to calm those who wonder about the users' privacy, and claims that PopOut does not save the pages that the surfer has visited or details about him, except for the number of pop-up ads that have been blocked so far by the program.

"The software sits on the user's computer, identifies the surfer's interests and responds at that moment by providing relevant links. There is no recording of the surfer's profile anywhere and no one here knows anything about him. The moment the surfer removes the program he ceases to exist from our point of view."

Natanson says that soon PopOut will figure out how to eliminate TopLayer ads as well, something that other pop-up blockers cannot do. If Natanson is successful, the online advertising world will need an extensive strategy overhaul.

"We know that users really don't want [TopLayer ads]," says Natanson, "and we know how they are made from a technological point of view. The problem is that since the code that activates the ad is integrated into the code of the page being viewed, the page might get "torn" and the surfer would not receive all of it. We are working on [this problem] right now."

How do you make money from this?

"At the moment we are not, and are only getting it into the market. In the future, if we can offer a Maccabi Tel Aviv fan a discount of tickets to a game via our search toolbar, I would imagine that we could make some money from that."

Glossary

Pop-up: A browser window that opens automatically and that is activated by a command embedded in the page a surfer has entered.

Pop-under: Like a pop-up, except that the advertising window is beneath the window that the surfer is viewing.

JumpSlide: A window that opens in one of the corners of the screen, slides to one edge and grows when passed over by the mouse.

JumpAd: The same as the JumpSlide, except that it can appear anywhere on the screen.

JumpOut: A pop-up window disguised as a regular banner. When passed over by the mouse the advertising content jumps out, beyond the borders of the banner.

TopLayer: A different type of technology than that used for pop-ups, which does not open a new browser window but rather adds a layer to the web page and sits on top of the content that the surfer is interested in viewing. Since the command for opening the top layer is integrated into the HTML code of the web page, the pop-up blockers cannot detect it.