Hang 'em high

It seems that the smarter services and gadgets get, the stupider they think humans are. User-friendliness can get downright unfriendly when people feel they have lost control - think of all those poor saps who still haven't learnt how to turn off the talking paperclip.

It seems that the smarter services and gadgets get, the stupider they think humans are. User-friendliness can get downright unfriendly when people feel they have lost control — think of all those poor saps who still haven't learnt how to turn off the talking paperclip.

So it is with information. Spam merchants will rail on about the service they perform for grateful internet users. VeriSign defends its odious SiteFinder by claiming how pleased users are with the wonderful new service. Spyware steals your personal info all the while boasting about the extra level of service that only Orwellian software can provide.

The result of all this unwanted "service" is that legitimate services and communications tend to be drowned out by the noise. This is a real concern for both users and providers of network services, and the potential impact shouldn't be dismissed — anecdotal evidence suggests there are plenty of frustrated users who simply stopped using email last month while the Blaster epidemic was at its peak.

It's heartening then to hear that Vodafone NZ has taken the initiative in protecting its SMS network from unsolicited commercial txt (UCT, a term I just made up). I was sceptical at first about the need for protection from SMS spam because of the per-message cost of sending text messages, but a mildly obscene message I received on my cellphone convinced me that the network was open to abuse. A Google search for the phrase "SMS spam" turns up nearly 50,000 references.

We've probably been lucky to date in New Zealand. Suzie Wigglesworth, Vodafone's market development manager, says in Europe merchants have enthusiastically adopted smart SMS services that send promotional messages to mobile phones that arrive in a store's vicinity. Like so many so-called smart services, however, SMS-sending software just didn't know when to stop. Innocent cellphone users arriving at shopping malls would find their phones inundated with promotional messages, until eventually people simply learnt to switch their phones off before arriving at malls.

That's inconvenient for the user, and counter-productive for the retailer. "Europe hasn't really been tackled in a very good way," Wigglesworth says. "[Retailers] received so much negative feedback from consumers saying that they didn't want to receive their messages."

Vodafone's solution in New Zealand is to set up a messaging gateway called Mobile Tool Box, which includes TXT ME, an opt-in system for customers to define which, if any, txt marketing or notification messages they wish to receive. Wigglesworth says the carrier won't allow bulk SMS messages to be sent on its network unless the recipient has signed up through TXT ME. A pre-existing commercial relationship makes no difference, she says: unless a customer has opted-in through TXT ME, they're off limits for UCT.

This news won't please everyone. There is a charge for merchants to use TXT ME, and direct marketers, who sometimes have a confused concept of "opt-in", probably won't be overjoyed. Personally I have a few qualms about Vodafone directly controlling marketing on its network, but it's difficult to see what the alternative is. I certainly don't want my cellphone to become as cluttered as my email inbox.

One indication that the opt-in system will work: to date, I haven’t yet received a Vodafone txt promoting TXT ME. That’s a good omen.

Of course, rogue spammers such as my correspondent (probably a brothel) will ignore TXT ME. But by cutting down on the amount of potential SMS spam getting through, Vodafone has made its job a lot easier in tracking down the less savoury UCT artists. Hang them from the cellphone towers, I say.

Cooney is an Auckland reporter for Computerworld. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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