I'm at the RVC SoftEdge Conference, where I'll be speaking tomorrow. RVC is the former venture arm of Reuters and this is its technology conference. The discussion here is wide ranging but generally around the evolution of information technology.
During one of the breaks I was speaking with a senior scientist who is intimately familiar with the plumbing of the web and is currently in command of a key piece of that infrastructure. On assurance of anonymity, he described for me what he views as a nail in the coffin of email communications as we know it. According to this scientist, SoBig and other spam bots, which he argues were designed to overwhelm spam filtering software, have so confounded AOL's email infrastructure that it has left the future of email in jeopardy. The volume of spam being sent by these autonomous spambots around the web is so great that, according to the scientist, AOL's email infrastructure has been brought to its knees this past Saturday, Monday and again today. As my source told me, AOL was ultimately forced for the first time to call upon others at the key choke-points around the web for assistance in solving this problem -- a problem which led the head of AOL's infrastructure group to state "the walls are falling in around us."
Just how bad is it? According to my source "it is the end of the Web as we know it." Despite massive efforts to trace SoBig and its progeny back to their source and to unravel the code necessary to turn these spam machines off, neither AOL nor other interested parties around the web have had any success and may never. If that is the case, the sheer volume of spam as a percentage of overall Internet traffic will make untrusted email communications completely unviable as a form of communication. Spam filters will necessarily be overwhelmed but email traffic without those filters will be impossibly unmanageable and therefore useless.
I have no way of knowing how much of what I am being told is true (although I will say that my source is certainly in a position to know) but it is certainly tragic if it is correct. As someone who relies so heavily upon email as the ultimate form of communication (first and foremost, because it is asynchronous, so I can engage in it late in the evening when my kids have gone to bed), the idea that email will no longer be tenable as a productive communications medium is horrifying. It will also have a serious impact upon the world of Venture Capital. Innumerable businesses upon which we are pitched each day and hundreds of which we have all funded are premised upon the viability of email as a communication tool (be it for knowledge management, collaboration, etc.). While a new frontier of trusted web communications will undoubtedly create numerous opportunities for technology funding, it will also leave a whole world of technology orphaned. Like any fundamental shift in technology infrastructure, this could leave a path of corporate roadkill in its wake.
NB: As a side note, I was visiting George Mueller of ColorKinetics just a couple months ago. In the course of our meeting, our conversation turned to the power of email. George passed on the theory of Ihor Lys, ColorKinetic's CTO, that smart distributed spambots would ultimately proliferate and make email communication impossible. I may have to give Ihor a ring and find out what else he's predicting.