Skyfire Horizon toolbar for AT&T and Sprint serves ads, collects browsing data

July 10, 2013
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    Wireless carriers like AT&T and Sprint love to make extra cash, but they may've gone too far with the new toolbar for bloatware browser Skyfire Horizon.

    Banner-Ads-Skyfire-Horizon-650x408

    If you’ve purchased a phone from a wireless carrier in the past year, chances are it came preloaded with an untold amount of intrusive, bothersome bloatware. Undoubtedly, carriers’ affinity for bundling an excessive number of apps with limited, expensive functionality (AT&T’s HTC One, for example, comes with eight different apps that essentially duplicate the functions of system applications, but often require a monthly subscription to use) is unfortunate to say the least. Many wireless operators aren’t keen to take a hint, though, as recently evidenced by AT&T and Sprint’s partnership with web browser company Opera. What do the carriers see as their next big moneymaker? Your device’s stock web browser with an ad-laden toolbar.

    Toolbar, you ask? Sadly, that awful relic of home internet’s infancy (and inexplicable magnet to the technologically uninclined) is making a comeback on mobile. Here’s what happened: Skyfire Horizon, one of Opera’s third-party browsers for Android, supports extensions and plug-ins via a framework. Last year, Opera penned a deal with AT&T to begin using this framework to serve ads to phones preloaded with Skyfire Horizon. Sprint soon followed suit, and today expressed intentions to increase Skyfire Horizon pre-installations dramatically by the year’s end.

    Sprint released a video detailing how the service works. Basically, in-toolbar ads and banners are available for purchase by advertisers. Companies can even promote applications by paying for an app recommendation pop-up, which sounds more than a little annoying.

    If the obnoxious banner ads don’t bother you, perhaps the Skyfire Horizon toolbar’s full capabilities will. For tracking purposes, the share buttons require access to your social networking accounts in order to function. Think that’s bad? It gets worse: according to a report by Geek.com, everything you do within Skyfire Horizon is, when the toolbar’s active, recorded. Advertisers can access browsing and location data, among other records. That’s a system ripe for abuse.

    Luckily, avoiding all of the scary Skyfire Horizon toolbar stuff is easy. Several alternative web browsers for Android are available for download through the Google Play Store, many of which probably offer better features and performance than Skyfire Horizon. Until carriers like AT&T and Sprint decide to put user experience first, it seems apps like Google Chrome and Dolphin HD will have to suffice.

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    Comments

    • Amine Elouakil

      And with how many of those Apps does the AT&T S4 comes up with?

    • NarutoNamikaze1010

      In the Video pause at 0:51. There’s already a toolbar XD look on the left edge of his screen……tsk tsk more bloatware. Companies T_T

    • Skyfire

      Kyle, this is Jay Hinman from Skyfire; as I did with Geek.com yesterday, I wanted to note some factual inaccuracies in your story. I’ll restate what I posted on their site yesterday, and note that the “scary” Skyfire Horizon platform you write about is the easiest thing in the world to delete with two clicks. Unlike quote-unquote “bloatware” that we’ve all seen of our devices for many years, this is something that’s gone for good if you choose not to use it. Also:

      1. Contrary to what you passed on from Geek.com, our platform collects no location data of any kind, nor clickstream/URL data of any kind. We only collect and anonymize general usage of the toolbar in order to make it better – which buttons are clicked, which extensions are popular, how buttons are ordered, etc. If we, or an operator, think an extension is going to be popular, and it isn’t, this is how we know to deprioritize or remove it.

      2. Every user of Skyfire Horizon on the operators you mention MUST opt in for even this data collection. If they do not opt in, they are still able to use the platform – Skyfire and its partners just can’t see what they’re doing.

      3. Once turned off, Skyfire Horizon does NOT magically reappear in your browser in the next software update. That would be immoral, and quite slimy.

      4. When an Horizon app extension like Facebook, Yelp or Twitter asks you for location or login credentials when you’re using them from the toolbar, this is NO DIFFERENT than those same apps asking you the same questions anywhere else on the web, mobile or otherwise. This happens in Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer and everywhere else. You agree to this through your own personal privacy settings with those apps (or not), and it has nothing to do with Skyfire Horizon whatsoever.

      5. Consumers can easily add, delete and re-add extensions (buttons) to their heart’s content. If they hate social or app recommendation stuff and only want extensions related to tech blogs, they’re free to add, delete and re-order their toolbar accordingly. Operators can also add new buttons to the growing list of extensions for you to choose from. You, the consumer, are free to ignore those extensions, or to delete them from your toolbar if they’re part of the default, out-of-the-box experience. That’s a very far cry from how you characterized it.

      Our mobile browser extension platform is only as good as the number of users who use it regularly to interact with and share mobile web content, and to date, a mere 1% have chosen to turn it off. It has to be extremely useful, relevant and easy to use by consumers in order to attract new extension developers, and we’re aggressively adding more extensions every month. Skyfire Horizon was built out of our many years running a very popular consumer web browser, and a terrific customer experience is paramount for us. We fail miserably if our platform is simply evil spyware designed to load up your smartphone with ads. Thankfully that’s nowhere near the truth.

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