An End to Spam?

It sounds too good to be true, and perhaps it is. Still, it probably does the jaded computer user good to hear of some promising developments in the global effort to fight spam.

The latest development comes from none other than Bill Gates, leader of Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) . Speaking at the ritzy World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Gates alluded to a "magic solution" that his team is working on to address the problem of unwanted email, or spam. Better still, he expects this solution to be in place soon: "Two years from now, spam will be solved."

His solutions revolve around the identification of the sender, which might be accomplished in many ways. Several being worked on include (a) requiring email senders to solve a puzzle that only a human could solve, (b) requiring the sending computer to solve a computational problem before sending an email (a task that would be easy for a few emails but too problematic for spammers who send mass-mailings), and (c) having recipients be able to charge spammers money.

He's guessing that the last solution might be the most promising. The charges levied against the sender would be set by the recipient. So, if you receive an unexpected email from an unfamiliar address and it turns out to be a long-lost friend, you'd presumably charge nothing. But if the strange email is exhorting you to save millions by enlarging your barnyard animals with inkjet cartridges, you can demand a little money. The idea is that masses of unhappy spam recipients would soon bankrupt spammers -- or would simply make spamming an unattractive endeavor.

Of course, those who fret about Microsoft's ubiquity and power might wonder whether this silver bullet will only be available to users of Microsoft Windows or to those who purchase certain software.

Still, spam costs more than the headaches it gives us, and any solution is worth exploring. According to some estimates, we're spending some $10 billion annually trying to fight it, and we're losing. According to another study, fighting spam costs companies around $170 per employee (spam cost calculator). Some studies estimate that the percentage of email that's spam is between 40% and 50% and may rise to 70% this year.

Internet service providers such as AOL parent Time Warner (NYSE: TWX  ) , Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) , and Microsoft spend a lot of money processing these emails. If and when the spam problem is solved, not only will we individual email users rejoice, but many firms -- and their shareholders -- will also likely be popping champagne corks.

Does spam make your day? Tell us how you keep perky despite the unwanted deluge of offers in your inbox on our Motley Fool Take discussion board.


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