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The History of BonziBuddy

It’s the year 1999 and the dawn of a new millennium is only a couple of years away. Windows 98 Second Edition is the most recent release of Windows, and the world is becoming increasingly more connected through the use of the World Wide Web. But that year, a company by the name of Bonzi Software released the very first version of their new virtual assistant for Windows named BonziBuddy.

Touted as “the new way to interact with your computer,” BonziBuddy gave users an easy way to search the web, keep track of appointments, and even inform them about new virus alerts. But by the early 2000s, Bonzi Software was in some deep trouble. Their flagship product was being labeled as “spyware,” and the company faced lawsuits from customers and even the United States Government.

And by 2004, the company’s domain name was repurposed, and the original website was gone.

The History of BonziBuddy

The History of BonziBuddy: Virtual Assistant or Spyware?

History of BonziBuddy- how did we get here?

The story begins a few years before the release of BonziBuddy in November of 1993 when Bonzi Software Inc. was founded. The company’s domain name, Bonzi.com, was registered about 2 years later on September 13, 1995. However, the earliest website snapshot available is from 1996, the earliest year accessible on the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.

On this early version of the site, we can see that the entire home page is dedicated to Bonzi Software’s newest and possibly first product known as Voice E-Mail. This application was advertised as “the next wave in online communications!” It allowed you to send voice messages & even music through an email & had versions available for multiple email clients.

For a while, this program remained the only offering on the company’s website, receiving periodic updates over the next couple of years.

The History of BonziBuddy

It wasn’t until the year 1999 when the world was introduced to 3 new Bonzi Software products.

1. The first one, InternetBoost ‘99, was touted as a revolutionary software utility that optimizes your Windows 95 and 98 internet access up to 200% faster.

The History of BonziBuddy

From the description, it sounds like it makes modifications to certain Windows settings to better optimize your computer for a dial-up connection.

2. The second piece of software called InternetAlert ‘99 was described as a piece of protection software designed to keep unwanted intruders out of your PC. It also came with a feature allowing you to simulate an Internet attacking your computer. Which, if we’re being honest, make it worth the 84.94, wait, well, at least they have a sale going on, so it’s only $40.

Apparently, all of these programs did at least somewhat well because the company still remained in business and kept creating software.

3. The final product we saw that year was BonziBuddy, “Your best friend on the Internet!” The program was advertised as “your internet sidekick,” and was essentially a virtual assistant that would assist the user with various tasks, like searching the web and reporting news. But it could also do more lighthearted things like tell jokes. Now for those of you who used or even seen BonziBuddy, this initial version of the program probably doesn’t bear any resemblance to what you’ve seen.

The History of BonziBuddy

That’s because the more popular purple gorilla character was not introduced until May of 2000. All prior versions used Peedy the Parrot, which was actually created by Microsoft. This is because BonziBuddy relies on Microsoft’s Agent technology which actually traces its routes back to Microsoft Bob. For those of you who haven’t used Microsoft Bob, it was an alternative user interface for Windows that was intended to appeal to novice computer users.

Bob came with an assistant that would accompany you throughout the program similar to how BonziBuddy worked. While it ended up being a complete failure, Microsoft reused the assistant aspect from Bob and incorporated it into other products. This could first be seen in Microsoft Office 97 with the introduction of the Office Assistant, better known as Clippy.

Soon after, the company created Microsoft Agent, which wasn’t really a dedicated program, but more of a technology that could be utilized in other applications. One of these applications was actually Microsoft Office. While Office 97 utilized Microsoft Bob’s.act file format for the office assistants, Office 2000 and later replaced this with Microsoft Agent’s .acs file format.

Essentially, these newer versions of Office utilized Microsoft Agent technology instead of technology derived from Bob. This is why the Office assistant in Office 2000 and later is 3D and more animated. BonziBuddy was yet another application that utilized this under-the-hood technology.

Now, Bonzi Software’s website stated that BonziBuddy retails for $40, but the users could download the version completely free for a “limited time.” But this “limited time” actually was just the entire time that the program was offered for download.

I accessed snapshots of the download page for BonziBuddy between the years 1999 and 2002, and every single one of them had the exact same offer. Obviously, this was just an attempt at making the user feel like they were getting some sort of insane deal because they visited the website just in time.

The History of BonziBuddy

But as the old saying goes, “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” And BonziBuddy is yet another example of that. Yes, BonziBuddy was free in the sense that you didn’t have to pay any money for it, but what you did end up giving to the company was your data, which would be collected by the program and would be used to track and display advertisements to you.

Not only that, but the program also would periodically set your web browser’s home page to Bonzu.com without your consent. These issues led to antivirus companies and various news publications to begin calling the program “adware” and “spyware.” But these concerns were the least of Bonzi Software’s worries. Remember those ads I mentioned before? Well, they ended up being very deceptive.

This was because the ads looked like regular Windows error messages and would claim that there were issues with your system that could only be solved by purchasing other Bonzi programs.

This led to a class-action lawsuit against the company. Bonzi settled this suit in 2003 agreeing to modify these popup ads to clearly distinguish them from regular Windows error messages. These included things like having the word “advertisement” in the popup and changing the design of the popups so they no longer look like Windows error messages.

But this was not the only legal issue that Bonzi Software would face. Just one year later, the United States Federal Trade Commission filed suit against the company claiming that they had violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, better known as COPPA. There’s been a lot of talk about COPPA here on YouTube in recent months, but the act itself was actually signed into law in 1998.

The law essentially mandates rules that site operators must follow when operating a website with regards to children’s personal information. It is against the law for a site operator to knowingly collect personal information from children under 13 without their parent’s written consent. This is where Bonzi Software ran into trouble because they did this very thing through BonziBuddy’s registration window that would appear when opening the program for the first time.

It would ask you for your full name, address, email, gender, and age. So, if a child filled this out and chose one of the age ranges under 13 years old, Bonzi Software would now knowingly possess information that can uniquely identify this child without the consent of their parents. This was a complete violation of COPPA, which is why the company was ordered to pay $75,000 in penalties. After these incidents, Bonzi Software, at least from what I can tell, faded away.

The History of BonziBuddy

The company’s website was repurposed in 2004 to a sort of landing page that would display various news and even had a search engine. As far as I can tell, this version of the website was operated by the same company, as the name “BONZI Software, Inc.” is still displayed in the privacy policy.

There’s also a new section in this version of the privacy policy dedicated to children’s privacy, where it states that, “We do not seek to collect personally identifiable information from anyone under 13 years of age.” I guess you can say that they learned their lesson. There was also a Software Downloads link on the main page, but it actually just redirects you to CNET’s download.com instead of providing download links to any of the old Bonzi software.

As for the company itself, it actually did not officially close its doors until May 20, 2016! It was on that day that James Bonzi filed a certificate of surrender of right to transact business with the California Secretary of State, essentially ceasing the company’s operations in that state. As for the founders of the company... well, they’re actually still around.

They started a company called 2KDirect in 2003, which still operates to this day out of the same office as the former Bonzi Software company. Funnily enough, 2KDirect’s flagship product is iPromote, an advertising platform.

So that is the story of BonziBuddy.

Although it was essentially killed off after those lawsuits, it experienced a resurgence in popularity due to the countless YouTube videos made on the program in the 2010s. And today, it lives on as that annoying piece of software that would collect information, display ads to you, all while having you convinced that all the program was doing was simply helping you navigate the World Wide Web.

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