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An answer to spam's discontent?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says Phillip Goldman is either a rich guy with a death wish or a man on the verge of making tech history.

Phillip Goldman is either another rich guy with a death wish or a man on the verge of etching his name into tech history.

First the rich part.

A few years ago, Goldman helped create WebTV Networks, which turned into a dot-com phenom that Microsoft later bought for some $425 million. Like lots of other successful entrepreneurs, Goldman eventually got sick of clipping coupons and looked to get back into the tech game.

His choice was unconventional: Goldman wanted to start an e-mail company.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I wondered, why would anyone of sane mind pick a mature business and square off against the likes of Microsoft, Yahoo and America Online? Surely, there are easier ways to commit business suicide. On the surface, at least, it sounded as if ambition had clouded Goldman's better business judgment.

Then I waded through the muck in my Web-based e-mail where I pored through as many come-ons for penis enhancements and breast enhancements as legitimate e-mails. Anyone who's logged on to an e-mail account in the last year knows the big Web portals are losing to the spammers. In fact, things have gotten so out of control that some of my friends have simply changed e-mail addresses as a way of (temporarily) staying a step or two ahead of the spammers.

All that has to be music to Goldman's ears, because his new company, Los Altos, Calif.-based Mailblocks, claims it can provide 100 percent protection against unsolicited junk e-mail. For long-suffering Web surfers, that would be the holy grail, the Super Bowl and the World Cup all wrapped into one.

Anyone who's logged on to an e-mail account in the last year knows the big Web portals are losing to the spammers.

Before allowing e-mails through to your in-box, Mailblocks automatically transmits a numerical password to first-time correspondents. The senders must then retype the code into an onscreen dialog box before the system acknowledges them as legitimate. Mailblocks also has reverse-engineered a way to fetch a user's messages from other Web e-mail systems and similarly screen out unwanted cyberjunk.

Spammers are not yet equipped to handle the kind of challenge-response technology incorporated into Mailblocks--not yet, at least.

"We know they'll try to eventually crack the technology," Goldman says. "But when they break the puzzle, we'll already be there with the next one."

Can Goldman make it? No doubt, it's a long shot. The service, which goes live today, has to make good on its promises. Anything less, and computer users will stick with what they have.

But his is a story that goes to the heart of the myths that grew up around Silicon Valley: a no-name upstart with better technology upsetting a field dominated by stodgy, more established companies. It's a good tale, too--the stuff that helped feed dreams for an entire industry.

Of course, Goldman must still convince millions of people who never heard of him or his company that he knows more about e-mail than Bill Gates and Microsoft. As a longtime (and frustrated) Hotmail user, I think it may not be all that hard. Hotmail's functional, and it's free--no small consideration for this cheapskate--but it's hardly a digital Mona Lisa.

Who knows? If spam gets worse, it may drive a lot of folks to try something--anything!--that holds the promise of stanching the flood of junk mail. Mailblocks has a lot of ground to make up, but it's useful to remember that when Google arrived on the scene, Yahoo and AltaVista dominated the Internet search business. Guess who's No. 1 these days?