Unwanted commercial email, better known as spam, can be contained within two years but will first reach unprecedented proportions, Microsoft's chief spam fighter said Thursday.

"Spam has reached epic proportions and we are in a crisis situation," said Ryan Hamlin, general manager of Microsoft's anti-spam technology and strategy group, speaking at Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus in Mountain View, California.

"For a lot of people out there the situation has got so bad that they are willing to give up email if the spam situation does not get better," he said. Almost half of all email today is spam, according to Hamlin, who cited figures from Brightmail Inc.

And it is about to get worse.

$18 billion bill The amount of spam is still growing, and Hamlin predicts as much as 65 per cent of total email next year could be spam. The cost to US businesses to combat spam will double from the US$9 billion spent in 2002, he predicted.

"It won't surprise me at all if we spend close to $18 billion a year next year to deal with spam," he said. This cost includes the price of filtering software and storage hardware and other costs. Loss of productivity is not factored in, Hamlin said.

Microsoft, together with industry partners and even traditional rivals such as AOL, is working to can spam. The topic has also drawn the interest of the US Federal Trade Commission and US lawmakers, who appear ready to pass anti-spam legislation this year.

These efforts should halt the growth in spam that lands in users' inboxes, and within 18 months could even reduce it, Hamlin said. Within two years, spam can be contained and reduced to the level of a mere nuisance, he predicted. Spam will become like computer viruses: something that is out there but which a user is not often hit by, Hamlin said.

"An occasional spam might show up, but it is kind of noise and you will just delete it. Spam (fighting) will evolve into a measure-countermeasure cycle similar to the antivirus landscape," he said.