Bill Gates' Spam Prediction Misses Target


Two years ago Tuesday, Bill Gates predicted that spam would be a "solved" problem by now, a prognostication that, say most e-mail experts, was as off-base as most of Nostradamus' forecasts.

Jan. 24, 2004, Gates told a group at the World Economic Forum that "two years from now, spam will be solved." During the talk, Gates pinned his prediction on the creation of an authentication scheme to verify senders' identities, as well as the hope that some kind of micropayment structure could be created for levying fees on e-mail.

"We have a long way to go before we solve the spam problem," said Scott Chasin, the chief technology officer for Denver-based e-mail security firm MX Logic Inc. "Gates' prediction has not come true. Talk to any Internet user out there and they'll agree. All they have to do to know is log into their in-boxes.

"I think Gates had a very optimistic view of the world," added Chasin.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant with U.K.-based Sophos, agreed. "Two years on, Gates' famous prediction now looks extraordinarily optimistic."

Neither of the proposals Gates mentioned two years ago have made much headway. Although Microsoft uses its own Sender ID authentication protocol for the company's Web-based Hotmail service, neither Sender ID nor the competing DomainKeys from Yahoo have anything like broad acceptance by ISPs or enterprises. And the micropayment concept for e-mail is as dead now as it was two years ago.

"The reverse cost structure of e-mail is a hard problem to solve before you have some identity technology in place," said Chasin. "You really need to build an identity structure before you can have micropayments."

"Changes to the Internet happen very slowly," added Cluley. "It takes years for things to wend their way through standards bodies."

Microsoft may take the position that "solving" the spam problem means containing spam with filtering technology, Chasin said, but even using that definition, spam remains a huge problem.

"We're still dealing with the cost of delivering spam, the cost of defending against spam, the cot of dealing with the ever-changing tactics of spammers. [Filters] deal with the symptom of spam, and not the cure."

By MX Logic's numbers, spam as a percentage of total e-mail declined in 2005 from the previous year. Last year, spam accounted for, on average, 68 percent of all e-mail traffic, the company reported in late December. In 2004, the average was 77 percent.

But a drop in spam don't mean much, Chasin argued. "You only have to ask e-mail users about how well [filtering] technology is performing to know that spam is still a problem. A few percentage points difference isn't really noticeable in the in-box. What we're lacking is some kind of user satisfaction index."

One analyst, however, argued that Gates had been on the money.

"Yes, I think spam has been solved," said Maurene Caplan Grey, formerly with Gartner but now an independent analyst working under her Grey Consulting nameplate. "No, it's not going to be eliminated," she added, but filtering has made spam manageable.

Traditional spam that hypes products is more a nuisance than anything. What isn't just irritating, however, are the messages that look like spam, but are actually bearing malicious code or trying to dupe consumers into identity theft.

"The spam that tells me I've won the lotto, that's just annoying," she said. "It doesn't causes any [real] harm, and if that increases, who cares? But I'm really concerned about the clever spam which carries a [malicious] payload or the means to carry out a phishing attack."

Even two years ago Gates himself conceded that his predictions didn't always pan out. Among Microsoft's missteps: misjudging the importance of the Internet (which led to a catch-up with Netscape in the browser market), and the success of Google.

Did he predict his lack of prophetic skills?

"It's not such good news for Bill Gates' skills as a fortune teller," said Cluley. "Spam is clearly not a thing of the past."