Email! HUH! Yeah. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing...

Who, Me? Bid farewell to the weekend and a cheery hello to the week with another seepage from The Register's confessional in the form of our Who, Me? column.

Eagled-eyed readers may remember Jon from Friday's data centre disaster. While he might have been forgiven for failing to sniff the burning of UPS circuitry then, today's tale is pretty much all his own work and could, in some small way, have contributed to the dominance of Windows.

Unless it was just the rock solid stability and quality of Microsoft's early attempts at GUI. Or not.

Jon was a fresh faced "general IT guy", very much a PFY rather than a BOFH we fear, and was responsible for managing the company's customer-facing email list through a third-party manager.

The company in question, a competitor of Windows at the time, is now long defunct. However, to protect the guilty, we'll call it NotWindows.

The sales team for NotWindows asked Jon to set up a list for marketing emails. It was, said Jon with the confidence of youth, "no big deal."

Already attempting to justify his role in the ensuing cockwomblery, Jon added "unbeknownst to me, however, the subscription address was funnelled through another alias so that the subscribers could theoretically be tracked in a separate database."

This was all well good, except for the small fact that such a set-up would make the list manager think it was getting emails from the same address, and therefore treat the messages as spam.

As the marketing efforts continued, Jon began to get daily alerts from the management software to the effect "that it had received more than 50 subscription requests from the same address and was discarding the rest."

How strange, thought Jon, and he ran the behaviour past the person running the subscriber database. "He indicated that the culprit address was the intermediate alias he was using," said Jon who, having passed the buck, promptly forgot all about it. For months.

Indeed, it wasn't until a member of the sales team, presumably finding their department a little quieter than hoped, forwarded a complaint from a customer that the expected marketing emails ("what are the odds?") had failed to materialise.

At this point Jon went back to dig a little deeper and discovered, to his horror, "that the mail software had been dropping legitimate marketing subscriptions."

It got worse: "I also discovered that the subscriber database wasn't actually retaining the subscribers' email addresses."

Helpfully, the database developer was able to give Jon a rough subscription account. Although without those emails, recovering the addresses would be impossible. Still, how bad could it be? No one really signs up for that sort of thing, do they?

"Apparently we lost about 2.5 million subscription requests."


"We were up against Microsoft at the height of their monopolistic power on the one hand and Linux on the other," said Jon, before adding perhaps a little guiltily: "so it's not clear how much of a difference my mistake made..."

"One does have to wonder, though."

Can you forgive Jon for being a small cog in the great machine that led to the dominance of Windows back in the day? Or perhaps you have your own recollection of a bit of slopey-shouldered behaviour that did little to help your employer's prospects. Clear your conscience with an email to Who, Me?

Where were you 20 years ago? Were you frantically cutting COBOL or adding a crucial extra byte or two to a date field? Or a bodge that might last to, oh, 2050 before it explodes? Who, Me? and On Call would also like to hear your sordid Y2K tales for a festive feast of near-failures and dodged bullets. ®

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