Microsoft Shuts Down the Internet


As the world descended into chaos, Bill Gates (chairman for Microsoft’s board of directors), Steve Ballmer (Microsoft’s CEO) and Stephen Elop (president of Microsoft’s business division) huddled together at Microsoft headquarters.

“Did we really do this?” asked Steve Ballmer. “They’re all saying it was our fault.”

“It wasn’t intentional, I never saw it coming,” said Stephen Elop, with a hangdog expression on his face.

“OK, great, that makes me feel much better!” remarked Steve Ballmer. “But what the heck happened?”

What followed was a long and fairly technical briefing, which Steve Ballmer occasionally found difficult to follow. The gist of the story was this:

– To increase user productivity, the Microsoft Office 2010 team of developers had added an artificial intelligence filter to Outlook, so incoming emails were analyzed, and those exhibiting zero or low useful content were not delivered to the in-box.

– Preliminary versions of this filter had sent a “bounce message” back to the sender informing him/her that their email had failed an intelligence test and would therefore not be delivered to the recipient.

– Limited beta testing had shown that this bounce message had a tendency to insult and infuriate the sender of the email in question. Several of the beta test group members found themselves faced with a spouse demanding divorce or death threats from former friends.

– To reduce the psychological repercussions of filtering out the dumb emails, another artificial intelligence program had been added to Outlook that automatically composed and sent an innocuous reply, purportedly from the recipient. (See ELIZA for an example of a program of this kind.) In 99% of the cases this was sufficient to satisfy the sender of the original email, and the situation seemed to be under control again.

– Microsoft Office 2010 was released to wide beta test.

– A few beta test customers reported that their email servers were exhibiting signs of heavy loading. However, this did not seem to be a very serious problem, and it only affected a fairly small number of the beta test customers. Bill Gates had personally made the decision that these reports were given low priority, with the expectation that they would be looked into later if the problem persisted.

– Microsoft Office 2010 was launched worldwide with much fanfare. The innovative marketing efforts helped stimulate sales, and very soon a large percentage of the hundreds of millions of Microsoft Office users had upgraded to the 2010 edition.

– Internet load had slowly but surely increased over the space of a few weeks until finally the entire system failed. The Internet was dead.

– With the benefit of hindsight it became obvious what had happened. Whenever one user of Office 2010 sent a dumb email to another user of Office 2010, the recipient’s Outlook automatically returned a simplistic reply, which the first system considered to be too dumb to accept, and instead sent its own simplistic reply back to the second system, and so on. Each original human-created dumb email sent from one Office 2010 user to another Office 2010 user triggered a new self-sustaining back-and-forth exchange of automated emails, typically on the order of 30 emails per second. Because each reply email included the complete set of prior replies, these emails very quickly became huge. And there was no obvious way to stop them. The load simply increased and increased, leading to the final meltdown for the entire Internet.

“My God, what a mess,” muttered Steve Ballmer. “Oh well, I suppose we should look on the bright side. By the time they figure out how to get the Internet up and running again, Google will probably be into chapter 11. We can probably pick it up for peanuts.”

Bill Gates turned ashen. “Damn it all Steve, you’re not supposed to know that! Not a word to anyone, you hear? Not a word to anyone!”

One Response to “Microsoft Shuts Down the Internet”

  1. First posted Nov. 4, 2009.

    OK, this isn’t actually realistic. But it still makes a good story, right?

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