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Britannica.com crippled by user volume

The Web site, which launched yesterday, suffers from a network lag as a flood of users tries to access the full version of Encyclopaedia Britannica's 32-volume reference work online.

Encyclopaedia Britannica is learning how to be an Internet company the hard way.

Its Web site, Britannica.com, which launched yesterday, has been suffering from a network lag that began yesterday afternoon. Users trying to enter the site have been greeted with a "no response" message, with only brief windows available to enter the site after repeated tries.

Britannica.com released a statement this morning explaining the outage. It claimed its servers have been on the fritz because of the flood of new users trying to access the site.

"The tremendous response to Britannica.com has created a tidal wave of activity on our site, and we are working hard to make the site available as quickly as possible," Don Yannias, chief executive of Britannica.com, said in a statement.

The company yesterday announced it would place its entire 32-volume set, which sells for $1,250 in print, on the Internet for free. The site would also include news feeds from newspapers, articles from magazines, and a Web search directory compiled by its editors.

Web site outages have become all-too-common problems. Internet heavyweights such as America Online and eBay have both suffered high-profile outages that have incensed users and caused both companies to invest heavily in upgrading their network.

"It's been pleasant but harrowing, and we realize it's been a very frustrating experience for our users," said Kent Devereaux, Britannica.com senior vice president of product development.

Outages caused by overburdened systems are now viewed by some companies as an opportunity to hype their service. During AOL and eBay's outages, company executives said the network problems demonstrated their demand and popularity.

The same seems to hold true for Britannica.com.

"We knew that the site would attract a significant number of users in its first day of operation, but we had no idea that this volume of traffic would be achieved so quickly," Yannias said.

Devereaux added that Britannica.com is in the process of tripling its server capacity. The hardware addition should be completed by the end of the day, he said. The company expects Britannica.com to be up and running sometime tomorrow.