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Third-party Spam Filters Reap Apple Mail Woes

TMO Reports - Third-party Spam Filters Reap Apple Mail Woes

by , 10:00 AM EST, February 18th, 2004

For Eric Rhodes of Atlanta, Georgia, Apple's Mail application that comes with OS X has been a convenient, powerful and hassle-free e-mail tool. That is until he started using its junk mail filter.

"It's been crashing and quitting and ruining my e-mail almost immediately after I started using the spam filter," Mr. Rhodes told The Mac Observer. "It simply doesn't work and it made my using Mail a complete disaster, until I just turned off the junk mail filter; but what good is that? I get over 500 pieces of spam a day."

Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his story of problems with Apple's Mail application, and specifically problems surrounding its junk mail filtering. Almost since Apple added the filter, people have complained on Internet message boards of its quirky problems that result primarily in crashing of the application. Others report even more serious problems, such as mails missing after a crash, mail reversed in its order, or even normal correspondence ending up marked as junk mail.

Mail users have not only reported and shared publicly their woes, but reported the problems to Apple. Unfortunately, most users have gotten little satisfaction from the product's maker.

"I've written numerous times and all I get is a response saying they're looking into the problem," said Samantha Lancaster of Denver, Colorado. "That was back in August of last year. I think by now I should have heard something, or the public at large would have gotten a fix by now."

Few have answers to what is causing the problem but those online sharing their problems seem to have pinpointed a possible cause - blank junk mail. The culprit appears to be e-mail that has no text body, title or sender information, but simply a receiving date. It is this blank e-mail, that when manually marked by the user as junk, causes the application to crash under most circumstances. Only after some clean up and clearing of the junk mail filter settings do things return to normal. Sometimes.

"But that doesn't do me any good," commented Tim Hodges of Boston, Mass. "This junk filter should work right the first time, every time. It doesn't. And Apple doesn't seem to want to address the problem or even acknowledge the problem exists."

As other Mail users have experienced, an Apple spokesman turned down repeated requests from The Mac Observer to discuss or comment on problems with Mac Mail for this article.

Third-party spam filter to the rescue

So Hodges and many other Mail users are turning to other alternatives to manage their junk mail and still use Apple's Mail application, despite its un-repaired problems. To the rescue has come a number of third-party spam filters that work together with Apple Mail using an AppleScript command, which sends a mail message to the separate filter to be checked. The mail is then re-routed back to Mail using AppleScript to be deposited in either a junk mail folder or in a regular e-mail in-box.

Independent spam filters are thought by many to do an even better job at filtering spam than Apple's own solution, and conveniently, with no crashing. It is those third-party spam filters that are benefiting from Apple's problems with Mail, winning praise and selling well online.

"I have seen a large increase in interest for my product from Apple Mail users," Michael Tsai, 24, developer of the popular spam filter SpamSieve, told the Mac Observer from Hanover, New Hampshire. "I can't say exactly how many more copies I've sold of SpamSieve because of the problems with Apple's Mail, but I know a lot of people are now using it with Mail."

SpamSieve uses a Bayesian spam filtering system that Mr. Tsai said is much more accurate then even the routines Apple uses with Mail. "SpamSieve looks at samples of the messages you receive - both the good messages and spam messages - and it looks at what words it finds there, which mail servers it came through and other characteristics of the message. It then picks up the patterns of the two types of messages given spam and remembers it."

Mr. Tsai said those patterns include primarily what words are used in an e-mail, whether they appear in the body or subject, the sender's and recipients name and information in the mail header.

It is the Bayesian technique that gives SpamSieve a "99.7 to 99.9 percent accuracy," Mr. Tsai said.

Two other popular junk mail filters are SpamFire from Matterform Media Inc., and SpamSlam from Ilesa.

SpamFire uses a rules-based approach to find junk mail by giving points to certain words and phrases. Then, every few months, new lists are sent out to the products users that are added to the filtering process for an additional yearly charge of US$12.95.

SpamSlam uses a 'challenge response filter' technique that sends a message back to the sender of an e-mail asking them to prove the message is legitimate and not an automated piece of junk mail. If the sender fails to respond to the challenge within a specified time frame, then the sender is blocked and all future messages are blocked as well. In addition, new versions of SpamSlam use a similar technique to SpamSieve.

It is not known exactly what method Apple uses in Mail to catch junk mail, but it is thought by experts to be a similar statistical method to that of SpamSieve.

Until Apple fixes its junk mail filter problems, people like Mr. Tsai hope to reap the rewards with increased sales of its spam filtering software. "I don't wish ill will on people using Apple's Mail because junk mail is becoming an increasingly frustrating thing for everyone," he said. "But I think the word is finally getting out about my product, and that is works not only without crashing, but that it's even more accurate in finding junk mail."

For Mail users like Ms. Lancaster, a third-party junk mail filter has been just the ticket.

"Usually I have had to stop using an application all together if a certain feature made the product continue to crash," she said. "At least this way, I can continue to use Mail, turn off its junk mail filter, and use an even better one instead. I might never go back to using the Apple junk mail filter."

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