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Microsoft Crashes Anti-Spam Party

See what's been added to the mix.

Microsoft’s recent broadside against spam kicked off at last November’s Comdex show in Las Vegas, when Bill Gates announced the Exchange Intelligent Message Filter (IMF), a new Bayesian-based technology that will be an option for Exchange Server 2003—and only Exchange 2003—later this year. IMF is based on SmartScreen, the base technology that has recently been added to Outlook 2003, MSN 8 and Hotmail.

Bayesian analysis, used by an array of spam tools, “learns” to identify spam and then adapts to new spam techniques. A Bayesian filter is initially taught what’s good mail and what’s bad, and scores incoming messages based upon this learned criteria. But Bayesian filters go beyond simple scoring and build lists of good and bad mail attributes automatically, rather than manually. The filters look at the whole message, not simply keywords. They can examine headers, words, word pairs and phrases, and HTML code. Bayesian filters are initially trained by being exposed to legions of spam and legitimate messages. In Microsoft’s case, SmartScreen can look for some half-million spam characteristics.

Exchange 2003 was already designed for improved spam detection. Administrators can subscribe to a service that tracks IP addresses used for relaying and spam and block those addresses. Address blocking was also already available for Outlook 2003.

In recent months, anti-spam vendors have privately confided to MCP Magazine that theirs is not a permanent market and eventually built-in tools will probably lick the problem. But SmartScreen is far from the death blow to third parties. SmartScreen focuses on one technique—Bayesian filtering—that some third parties see as a year away from reaching its full potential. And Microsoft took great pains to point out that multiple filters are the best way to ward off unwanted e-mail. “To date, there is no single approach that can deflect all forms of junk e-mail, but multiple capabilities distributed across various products can do a great job of catching most unwanted messages,” said Brian Arbogast, a Microsoft vice president.

Sunbelt Software, an anti-spam vendor whose flagship product is iHateSpam, points out that SmartScreen doesn’t run on the gateway, allowing spam to clog the network on the way to the mail server and is a new, immature tool. “Keep in mind that it is a MS Version 1.0 for a while. You know what that means,” the company cautioned in an e-mail newsletter to customers. “And remember there is a whole cottage industry now that lives off fooling spam filters. Guess which ones will be torn apart first, and I’ll take a bet with you on the first date a site appears with the title: ‘100 ways to get around the MS spam filters.’”

Meanwhile, several other vendors, including BrightMail and Tumbleweed, welcomed Microsoft to the market and took the opportunity to promote their products as great additions to the new Microsoft weapon.

But all the happy talk in the world can’t hide the pressure on anti-spam companies to develop cutting-edge technologies and to develop other, innovative ways to add value to messaging in order to survive.

Some argue that giving away anti-spam software is another case of bundling a free product in order to take over a new market, as Microsoft was accused of doing with Internet Explorer. Internet surfing, however, was an entirely new function, while anti-spam solves a problem inherent to e-mail—a much different scenario.

Microsoft is attacking spam in other ways, as well. Besides SmartScreen and support of third parties, the company is lobbying for stronger anti-spam legislation, is suing known spammers, and has joined with AOL, Yahoo, Earthlink and others in forming the Anti-Spam Technology Alliance, an organization to develop anti-spam standards. Microsoft is also hoping to clamp down on free e-mail accounts set up by computers and used to send spam by forcing the user to prove they are actually human before granting the account.

About the Author

Doug Barney is editor in chief of Redmond magazine and the VP, editorial director of Redmond Media Group.

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