SAN JOSE, Calif. - Microsoft Corp.'s move to offer stronger anti-spam technology for its e-mail server software could spell trouble for companies that are trying to build businesses on products that filter out unwanted electronic pitches.
But - at least for now - Microsoft and some of its potential rivals agree that the flood of junk messages is a big enough problem that many companies and different approaches will be needed to stem the flow of unsolicited e-mail.
"We don't believe there's one single technology that's going to get rid of spam," said Francois Lavaste, vice president of marketing at Brightmail, an antispam firm. "There's no silver bullet."
During a speech Sunday at the Comdex trade show in Las Vegas, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates unveiled an add-on to the company's Exchange Server 2003 software called Intelligent Message Filter. It's expected to be available in the first half of 2004.
Exchange already offers some anti-spam protection, with support for some message filtering and block lists. The add-on goes a step further, offering a technology called SmartScreen that learns what is or isn't spam and applies the patterns to filter other messages.
SmartScreen also is being used in Microsoft's Outlook 2003 e-mail program as well as the company's Web-based Hotmail and MSN online service.
"We believe these new approaches will shift the tide, that between what we're doing with technology and what's being done on the legal front, it makes the business proposition for spammers no longer attractive," Gates said.
A study released last month by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that spam is affecting the usability of e-mail. Twenty-five percent of users say the rising tide of unsolicited messages has reduced their use of e-mail.
Microsoft has a history of leveraging its operating system software dominance and elbowing its way into markets at the expense of competition. Its victory over Netscape in the browser wars of the 1990s is the prime example. Detractors say Microsoft's current bundling of Media Player with its operating systems could do the same in multimedia-player software.
"If it gets to the point where they're going to include it for no charge, then it could be Netscape all over again," said Walter Janowski, a Gartner Inc. analyst. "If it's something they're going to market, then it's another issue."
As it stands, Microsoft plans to provide the free anti-spam add-on to customers who pay to participate in its Software Assurance upgrade program and are running the latest version of Exchange.
Enhanced Exchange servers also will continue to work with other anti-spam technology. In fact, other products could battle spam that gets through the cracks or even safeguard against so-called "false positives," messages that are legitimate but tagged as spam.
"The way we're deploying the technology is that we're specifically integrating this in a way that leaves opportunities for third-party vendors to continue to work," said Kevin Doerr, a group business manager at Microsoft. "We're big proponents of the notion of defense in depth."
Competitors could target businesses that don't want to upgrade to Microsoft's latest version of Exchange. They also could try to halt spam before it reaches an Exchange server, which typically reside within a corporate network, not at the gateway.
And there are other e-mail servers besides Exchange, which has yet to reach the same degree of dominance that Microsoft's Windows operating system has on desktops.
Scott Petry, vice president of products and engineering at the spam-blocking company Postini Inc., said he won't be running newspaper ads welcoming Microsoft to the industry. But, he added, the move was expected and will end up helping legitimize the industry further.
"The spam problem is out of control," he said. "Many customers are getting to the point where they're losing faith in e-mail as a communications mechanism, and I think that's dangerous."