News

Spam: The Killer Application Killer

2/02/2003 7:00 PM Eastern

E-mail — and its companion, messaging — were long ago anointed as the killer applications of the online world. Instant messages are moving beyond the "buddy list" novelty into the enterprise arena, as underscored by the recent Hewlett-Packard Corp.-America Online alliance to package IM services for business.

And although high-speed connections offer scant benefit to standard e-mail (unless you can type a lot faster), broadband actually opens the door to a new breed of interactive messaging, including the download of photos, family videos and rich-media content.

All of this would seem to make the e-mail killer app even more attractive. But e-mail's success is accompanied by a $10 billion problem: spam. And it continues to grow more vexing.

In all of its forms, unsolicited e-mail has become more virulent and more upsetting to more customers. The huge annual price tag for home and business spam (up from $9 billion last year) includes the costs of filtering software and lost productivity, as well as bandwidth and resource consumption.

Half spam

And that's not to mention sheer annoyance: At least 30 percent of e-mail is now spam, and one forecast assumes that its exponential growth will push it past the 50 percent level by midyear.

Understandably, according to the latest Harris Interactive study, the most annoying spam involves pornography (91 percent); mortgage and loans (79 percent); and investments (68 percent), which may include the notorious Nigerian oil-scam spam.

One consequence of this deluge is that customers might turn away from e-mail altogether. The sticky, attractive aspect that has made e-mail into a killer app could become the disgusting feature that kills it — or at least restricts its appeal and expansion through broadband channels.

The most significant broadband threat comes from rich media. Legitimate direct marketers now assume that at least two-thirds of e-mail clients can handle HTML input. That also encourages spammers, who are increasingly inserting graphics — many pornographic — into their messages.

Hence, unsuspecting customers often open a message (or just click onto the "next" inbox item) to confront the most vile images. The next click may well be to cancel of service, or they may opt for total avoidance of e-mail until better filters are in place.

And that could take a while.

Filters have limits

Internet-service providers at all levels — broadband, dial-up, consumer and enterprise — are accelerating their efforts to erect new barriers to spam.

AOL's latest iteration, version 8.0, includes additional "block spam" features, although my experience there suggests that it is undereffective and may even be generating additional onslaughts. MSN's filter (also used by Microsoft's Hotmail offshoot) seems to be much stronger.

But all such filters have their limits, especially in real-world applications. For example, a recent enterprise spam filter stops all messages that shout with all-capital-letter "subject lines" – which just happens to halt legitimate messages that might be entitled "NCTA NEWS" or "SCTE EVENTS" or "PTA HI-LITES."

ISPs are will aware of these hurdles.

AT&T WorldNet admitted in late January that its newly activated spam-filtering technique deleted legitimate e-mail, so the company had to defuse the barrier. At about the same time, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference on spam attracted more than 500 people — well above the 30 people expected for the informal event.

Although the agenda explored statistical filters and other new tools, there was no consensus solution. If anything, the symposium acknowledged that different access providers might have to agree on compatible spam filtering procedures — a challenge in the competitive arena, but a valuable idea if e-mail is to remain part of the online offering in an over-spammed environment.

Crossover spam

Meanwhile, the larger issue of interactive messaging has taken on new dimensions — ones that may shape the next wave of broadband e-mail.

For example, "XM" (for "cross media") connectivity has found a niche in the new convergence cosmos — perhaps a large one. (XM should not — but inevitably will — be confused with XM Satellite Radio, the digital audio service provider.)

XM involves coordinated TV and phone interactivity and messaging, particularly mobile phone responses to TV programs. Last week's Super Bowl telecast featured several ventures that synchronized phone-in responses triggered by on-screen activities.

Most notable was the "AdBowl" gimmick in which Sprint PCS wireless phones were notified by a text message that they could "vote" as specific commercials were about to appear.

Basically, the burden of e-mail has become too daunting for some customers. It has "taken the place of work," says one insightful (and overwhelmed) customer. My favorite Silicon Valley solon long ago advised me to just "delete everything," which has become increasingly easy to do.

And increasingly attractive, as the spam factor climbs towards (or some days well beyond) 50 percent of the intake for your.

I-way patrolman Gary Arlen regularly dodges spam for Broadband Week.