I heard a reporter tell me their name, and then listened to hyperventilating and (apparently) proclaiming their love for me repeatedly, "I love you. I love you.” –A phone call I received May 2000
Viruses were nothing new in the early twentieth century, but we were about to cross a line where they were far more than annoyances. This is the story leading up to and crossing that line and the very difficult decisions we had to make relative to the value propositions in our products and that customers appreciated. It sounds easy today, but at the time it was enormously difficult. Breaking your own code is never a trivial matter. This story is also a bit of a sleuthing adventure as tracking down this virus is an important part of understanding the dynamics and context of making difficult changes—there’s always a conspiracy theory. We will follow the story through John Markoff’s excellent NY Times reporting, which was rather frustrating to me at the time.
It is somewhat odd to be writing about viruses for computers when we face such a tragic biological virus. At the same time, we are still unwinding from an incredible zero-day exploit so the lessons herein seem quite relevant as well.
This post, slightly edited, appeared as an excerpt in Fast Company in May 2020, on the 20th anniversary of ILOVEYOU with a related Q&A Steven Sinofsky lived Microsoft history. Now he’s writing it. Many thanks to Harry McCracken (@harrymccracken), global technology editor at Fast Company.
Back to 059. Scaling…Everything
One morning during the first week of May of the new millennium, I received a call at my apartment while I was getting ready for work. I heard a reporter tell me their name, and then listened to hyperventilating and (apparently) proclaiming their love for me repeatedly, “I love you. I love you.”
That’s what I heard, anyway. The call. A reporter. Early morning. It was all weird.
Unfortunately, LOVE broke out all over the internet. Over the span of a weekend, inboxes around the world of Outlook and Exchange email users were inundated with dozens of copies of email messages with the subject line, “ILOVEYOU.”
I learned from the reporter that the LOVE email incident was deemed so serious that the PR lead gave her my home number and simultaneously sent me a briefing via email. In the era of dial-up, I could not read the email and talk on the phone because I only had one analog phone line at home. I had no idea what was going on, so I agreed to return the call after I dialed up and downloaded my email.
That’s when I realized the magnitude of the issue.
For all the positives of the PC in business, IT professionals still wrestled with the freedom of PCs, not only the freedom to create presentations and spreadsheets but the freedom to potentially wreak havoc on networks of connected PCs because of computer viruses. Viruses were hardly new, part of PCs from the earliest days. As a new hire in the Apps Development College training, I completed a unit on early MS-DOS viruses. The combination of many more PCs in the workplace, networking, and then email created a new opportunity for those wishing to do harm with viruses. By their nature, and by analogy to the word virus, most viruses are not fatal to a PC, but they can cause significant damage, loss of time, and take a good deal of effort to clean up.
By the late 1990s even amongst government and academia, the risk posed by viruses to the nation’s infrastructure were front and center. Fred B. Schneider, a Cornell faculty member (and former sponsor of our chapter of Association of Computer Science Undergraduates), chaired a working committee going back to 1996 on the topic of trustworthy information systems (the word trustworthy will make an appearance in much of Microsoft’s reaction to the stories shared in this story). The committee included faculty from many universities and representatives from across industry, including Microsoft’s George Spix (GSpix). The work was convened by Computer Science and Technical Communications Board (members included Butler Lampson (BLampson), Jim Gray (Gray) and Ray Ozzie) of the National Research Council. The effort resulted in a 300-page report that was widely influential, once the commercial world caught up with these challenges.