The Northern Spy: a measure of health?
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The Northern Spy: a measure of health?

By Rick Sutcliffe

Our persispacious reader may have noticed that this column is a little late. Chalk that up to health issues, including bouts with a rather violent gastroenteritis over Christmas, ongoing sciatica that make standing up and sitting down difficult, and a nasty cold. The joys of getting old. Ah, but what's a little pain? It never hurt anyone. The top line: brevity shall be the order of the month.

Corporate pain seems the lot of once stalwarts Kodak, Sony, and RIM, all of whom have fallen on times that get harder with every passing month. Kodak seems to be unable to sell patents to save the company, and barring some last minute reprieve, appears destined for the bankruptcy courts. Sony, dragged down by the cutthroat TV business, has been unable to make a profit in nearly a decade, and has no immediate prospect of a turnaround. The inevitable reorganization and shrinkage is going to be painful, but the Spy feels that it has to happen in 2012 if it is going to happen at all. The investors must be getting restless.

Restless would be putting it mildly for RIM's shareholders, some of whom think that replacing the twin CEOs will be the salvation of the company. In a word, the Spy says, "Not." RIM has failed to keep up with the times; it's lost too much mindshare to Apple, product delays leave no motive for customer loyalty, and so marketshare is evaporating like snow in the summer sun.

A friend purchased a Blackberry PlayBook as a gift for her husband, because of the steep discount to the original retail price, so the Spy got a look. The device seems well-engineered and solidly built, but we soon discovered that you cannot charge the battery unless within range of a Wi-Fi connection. (There were no instructions included, so no way to tell if this is normal or anomalous behaviour.) Sorry, but this is bizarre. These two functions are unconnected and have no reason to be tied. She decided to take it back--"too complicated," she said.

Inflicting pain and abuse on others in total self-absorbtion, and lacking a scintilla of empathy for those hurt, is the hallmark of the psychopath. What do you call a corporation that does the same?
The Spy doubles as a web host, as the reader no doubt knows. In this capacity, he was suddenly inundated by customer complaints that they were unable to send mail to Hotmail accounts. Connection attempts sent back an error message to the effect that the WebNameHost server was banned by policy from sending to Hotmail. It soon became apparent that this ban extended to accounts with MSN, Yahoo, and addresses, and there may be others. Hotmail is of course owned by Microsoft, and Yahoo is a close ally. This poses a particular problem with the Spy in his day job, as the student mail for his university is currently handled by Hotmail, though that is apparently about to change.

A note to Hotmail support got back a reply to the effect that such a block could be caused by various mail practices and issues at the server end, and recommended putting SPF records into the domains' MX, checking mail list sign up and opt-out policies, spam detection procedures, blacklists, and looking at the "Sender Score" maintained by Return Path, Inc.

A further query after jumping through the requested hoops and asking for the ban to be lifted, elicited a snarky reply that no more help would be forthcoming, that Hotmail refused to discuss specifics about the ban, and would not reply further. They have maintained this resolve and now do not answer. The Spy notes that in his more than three decades in the industry, he's never encountered such a reply. Perhaps they were hurt by his mild comments that cutting him off for what appear to be trivial reasons looks bad in the light of their own inability or lack of desire to respond to span and abuse complaints concerning mail originating from their customers.

Because of this intransigence and lack of hard information, the details of what follows are somewhat speculative, based on discussions with other webmasters bitten by the same nastiness, online discussions, checking out Return Path, and a detailed examination of server error logs.

Apparently, all four of these services rely on the Sender Score to determine the trustworthiness of a mail server. When it falls below some magic but undisclosed number, said server is cut off from sending to the MS allies. Gmail, another free service, and not without issues of its own, does not use this service and is unaffected. By contrast, most Linux boxes use their own scanning software to make more intelligent and local-condition-driven decisions about spam and blacklisting.

The Sender Score is supposedly based on (i) the percentage of mail accepted, (ii) complaints, (iii) volume from the server (iv) percentage sent to unknown users (i.e. bad addresses) and (v) spam trap hits. The algorithm used to compute the overall score of 81 from this is proprietary. On all these WebNameHost's server scored very well, except volume (62%) and unknown users (52%). Why the volume rating is low is anyone's guess. No more than ten to twenty messages a day went out to all MS allies combined.

All right, back to the error logs, where it becomes apparent that one of the Spy's customers has a blog to which a person apparently subscribed with a typo in her address. Comments to the blog were mirrored back to her, and replies also went to the bad address. As soon as these reached a certain percentage of the total volume seen going to the MS allies, the bad reputation threshold was apparently triggered, and the server cut off. Note that the volume and unknown user ratios are apparently relative to other servers, not absolute. The total number of bad messages in question was less than twenty-five.

The bottom line: There is no repairing this reputation without waiting for the total lack of traffic to right the percentages, which apparently takes a month or more. Afterward, say other webmasters, it is even easier to be banned again. In the meantime, the Spy required customers to remove all MS-allied addresses from lists and personal email, check every one of them for validity once the situation does clear, and only then add them back in one at a time.

A very large raspberry to the whole lot of the MS-allied mail gang. This is an exceptionally bad way to make decisions, a worse system for rectifying them, and a truly wretched support backup--in sum, a good (or bad) example of the worst in our current Internet system. This is one reason why MS has such a bad reputation in the industry, and a good motive not to place one's mail business with any of their gang. Run, do not walk, far away from involvement with the whole lot of them.

Should you go to gmail? They, after all, were unaffected. In short, No. Gmail may be more accepting of incoming mail, but is just as liberal with outgoing mail. The Spy had a problem with a notorious email abuser situated with them not long ago. He and others complained, but got neither reply nor action of any kind. The Spy recommends using Linux-based professional mail servers (the kind you pay for) where mail is scanned and scored, the customer can make decisions on what is allowed through, and the server owner will blacklist on request. Not that WebNameHost is trolling for a lot of new customers, but that's how his business is run. The MS allies are giving all mail servers a bad name with their arbitrary and poorly thought out policies.

More than this, the affair illustrates that what ideas MS has come up with in recent years (and there are not many of them) are more likely to be bad ones than good. Yes, the company has money and a captive market. No, it does not have much by way of long term prospects, and those prospects are dimming with the passing years. To repeat a radical suggestion: An Apple licensing scheme could remove MS from the OS business in under three years.

For the New Year the Spy wishes all his individual readers not only physical and spiritual health and prosperity, but also vigorous competition among lots of new ideas and products on the market to keep prices low. Contradictorily, he wishes manufacturers prosperity as well, though he notes that it will only happen if they pay close attention to the markets, the trends, and their customers needs. Those who do will prosper, those who do not will disappear. Look for some high-profile corporate and sovereign successes and failures in 2012. How about that for a prognostication? It can hardly go wrong.

--The Northern Spy

Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor and chair of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several organizations, including in the corporate sector, and participated in industry standards at the national and international level. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and six novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.

Want to discuss this and other Northern Spy columns? Surf on over to Participate and you could win free web hosting from the subsidiary of Arjay Web Services. Rick Sutcliffe's fiction can be purchased in various eBook formats from Fictionwise, and in dead tree form from Amazon's Booksurge.

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