Don’t be a Solution in Search of a Problem

Written by Chris Ivey on May 17th, 2011. Posted in Lessons Learned

I had spent years working on my solution to email spam. It was a good idea, and I had patents. I had had my technology proposals reviewed by network engineers, and they all agreed that it would probably work very well. Sure, it was complex, and would cost a lot to develop, but it would work.

The problem was that no one wanted it. At least, no one wanted it enough to be willing to risk investing the money required to build it. When I spoke with ISPs and IT managers, I encountered wall of inertia.

They pointed to the effort and money they had already invested in their current solutions. They didn’t work perfectly, or even very well, but they worked – sort of. Complaints were down, and their support people were used to the technology; and they’d spent a lot of money putting it in place. Sure, they might change their solution – perhaps in a few years – if other people adopted it first.

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to sell people on something they don’t really feel they need. You can have the best mouse trap in the world, but no one is going to buy it if they already have a trap that catches mice.

I learned that if you’re selling a solution without a problem, you will find yourself frustrated, repudiated, emasculated, constipated, cock-blocked and shell-shocked. You just don’t get anywhere. If you try to push ahead and develop your business anyway, you are doomed to failure.

However, I had taken one useful piece of advice to heart, and encouraged the people I talked to give me their ideas about what I should develop. One of the first business owners I spoke with asked me “Do you have anything for CAPTCHAs?”

“I’m working on it”, I said; and then I ran home to look up “CAPTCHA” on Google.

It turns out that I already knew what a CAPTCHA was, and I hated them. CAPTCHAs are those annoying little boxes full of twisted distorted letters that you have type in order to submit a form or to sign up for something on the web.

CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart. It’s an acronym that could only have been invented by academics.

A Turing test by the way, is named for the eccentric World War II Bletchley Park code breaker responsible for cracking the German Enigma code – and one of the world’s first computer scientists: Alan Turing. In a 1950 article called Computer Machinery and Intelligence1, Dr. Turing posited a test for a successful Artificial Intelligence which would be indistinguishable from a human. CAPTCHAs are actually a “reverse” Turing test, since they’re intended to separate computers from humans, as opposed to designating an AI.

Reverse Turing tests are designed to prevent spammers from using scripts to attack human interfaces, (like comment forms and sign-up forms for free services). In some situations they can be very important indeed – for example if you’re using them to prevent scalpers from bulk buying tickets for a big rock concert or football game.

The problem is, they’re annoying to users, and they don’t work very well. Spammers still find many ways to circumvent them.

By the time the third or fourth person had complained about CAPTCHAs, I knew I was on to something, so I abandoned my email project, and instead turned my attention to developing something better than the current CAPTCHA solutions.

1. Alan Turing, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, Mind (journal), 1950

Trackback from your site.

Chris Ivey

Christopher Ivey is the CEO of ShareThink Ltd., a technology innovation company located in Almonte, ON, just outside Ottawa.

Leave a comment