Filtering Spam Filters
Spam is like the weather and taxes. Everyone gripes, but no one ever does anything about it.
There are lots of reasons for our collective inaction. Figuring out which software fights spam best is nowhere near as easy as making BIG $$BUXX$$ AT HOME refilling ink-jet cartridges. The review site Spamotomy.com lists 138 anti-spam applications. Most work with only one or two different email programs. And once you install a filter, you still have to monitor it to make sure it doesn't delete messages you care about. For most folks, it seems easier just to live with the problem than try to fix it.
But better software is arriving. And if you still haven't done anything to beat back the tide of junk email, now's the time for action.
Some of the most effective new approaches make intelligent choices by actually reading your mail. InBoxer, which works with Microsoft Outlook, analyzes every word of the messages in your inbox to learn the characteristics of email that is meaningful to you. Though the software is tailored for each user, it finds that such words as "wealth," "millionaires," and "secrets" tend to tar a message as spam.
InBoxer, from a startup called Audiotrieve, separates spam into two different folders. One, called "review," is for stuff that appears to be spam but may not be. Users need to look at the review folder occasionally, tagging messages as spam or not spam, giving the software a refresher course to keep it sharp. The other folder, called "blocked," is for messages the software thinks are definitely spam. Since the review folder contains fewer messages than the blocked folder, it doesn't take much time to separate a request to assist the family of a former African despot from a deal on last-minute airfares that you may want to keep.
Corvigo's MailGate (not to be confused with Page Enterprises' MailGate) takes a similar approach. But rather than running on an individual's desktop, it works with corporate systems. Running on a dedicated server, MailGate uses an artificial-intelligence strategy called "intent-based filtering" to differentiate good email from bad. It's basically an attempt to discern whether a sender is trying to sell you something. "We look for the language structure of direct marketing," says Jeff Ready, Corvigo's CEO. MailGate also sends individual corporate users its own junk mail—a daily message listing all the email it has quarantined as spam. That way, if it makes a mistake, you can rescue the message.
Two other programs worth mentioning: Qurb, one of the best "whitelist" programs, automatically develops a list of people you correspond with regularly—and fires off messages to other senders demanding they prove they're real people. And InBoxCop is a catchall program that blends several approaches, including a blacklist of known spammers and the effective SpamAssassin technology, into a package that works with AOL, Hotmail, Outlook Express, and several other programs.
Spamotomy.com offers a good search engine—and reviews—to find a spam filter that will work with your particular operating system and email program. None will turn your inbox into an impregnable fortress. But better to be surprised when a piece of spam makes it over the walls than constantly inundated by unwanted messages.
The Gore-Tex of Guitar Strings
The annals of innovation are littered with products that, after failing in their original guise, took off when shrewdly redirected. Think Post-it Notes. Or Viagra. Or now Elixir guitar strings.
Guitar strings—brought to you by the folks who put Gore-Tex on your rain slickers and Glide floss between your teeth. In just five years, W.L. Gore & Associates has become the second-leading manufacturer in the $100 million fretted-stringed-instrument business by repositioning a failed experiment.
In 1997, a team at Gore was testing its expanded polytetraflouroethylene (ePTFE) material for the cables that control puppets at Disney's theme parks. The prototype failed—but failure was just the beginning. "We gave it to guitar players to try out, and they were amazed that it didn't go dead," explains Steve Young, who now leads Gore's Elixir business.
Gore's strings lasted up to five times longer than most others then available. But they also cost twice as much. How to crack that nut in a static category? Gore went straight to musicians. It bought magazine subscriber lists and trolled festivals, giving out samples and building buzz. It hired musically attuned reps to bond with retailers and got Taylor Guitars, a leading acoustic manufacturer, to install Elixir on all its guitars. Now Elixir Strings are sold by more than half the music stores in the country.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.