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eBay blacks out yet again

Another outage this weekend strikes one of the Web's most successful e-commerce players and could result in customer and investor defections.

Tech Industry
Despite a frantic, around-the-clock effort to keep the auction site running after two embarrassing and costly outages this week, eBay was again inaccessible to customers this morning.

Visitors to eBay early today received no response from the site, marking at least the third unplanned outage in five days, according to messages on eBay?s announcement board. eBay could not be reached for comment this morning.

The latest problems raised further speculation that eBay's woes could result in customer defections. Late last night, eBay took the site down intentionally but reported that it came back up at 2:25 a.m. PT today. However, the the site's bidding functions were not available from at least 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. PT.

A corrupted database was See special report: 
The high price of auctions blamed for the Friday disruption, leading the company to put on a full-court press to get the site back online. In particular, eBay pointed a finger at software from Sun Microsystems.

Even though the company said a new user interface put in place Wednesday did not cause the outages, the look and feel of the "old" eBay was restored yesterday "to remove ALL recent changes just in case one of them could be the source of further problems."

Despite eBay's efforts to get the site back online, today's outage indicates the company is still groping for answers at a time of heightened consumer and investor awareness. The company's stock plunged 9 percent on Friday.

The site was down for about six hours Wednesday and crashed again at 7:50 p.m. Thursday. It took 50-plus engineers a full day to identify and repair problems that have undermined confidence in the company, which faces disgruntled users, aggressive competitors, and one persistent question: Why does this keep happening?

On top of other recent outages, Friday's halt to bidding and selling prompted outrage among eBay regulars, some of them already bolting to rival person-to-person auction sites run by Yahoo and Amazon.com. (See related story.)

eBay chief executive Meg Whitman and company founder Pierre Omidyar moved quickly to limit the fallout from the Friday outage.

In an apologetic letter to customers, Whitman and Omidyar said eBay will automatically refund all seller fees on all active auctions Thursday and Friday. Under a new policy, such refunds will be made for any "hard outage" in the future that lasts more than two hours.

eBay also will offer free listings sometime next month "as a token of our appreciation for your continued support and understanding," the letter read. In addition, auctions that were scheduled to expire during the outage and for most of yesterday were extended for 48 hours, longer than the usual 24-hour extension after downtimes.

The tone of the mea culpa reflected the gravity of the outages. eBay and many users see themselves as more than an auction site; in eBay culture, it's also a community.

"We are sorry," the letter began. "We know that you expect uninterrupted service from eBay. We believe that this is reasonable, and we know we haven't lived up to your expectations. We want to earn back your trust that we'll provide you with this level of service."

eBay's periodic outages, which have become more frequent in the last seven months, could begin to hurt the fast-growing site. Now disgruntled buyers and sellers have name-brand alternatives in Yahoo and Amazon, which are competing aggressively in a space eBay created and had alone for itself for years.

"This is not the most opportune time for us to have a problem like this," eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said Friday. "It's a competitive enough environment as it is."

Even Wall Street turned sour on favored child eBay Friday, as its stock dropped 16.8125, or 9.2 percent, to close at 165.8750. Some financial analysts believe that one reason eBay's stock has performed so well is that a noteworthy portion of its 3.8 million registered customers also buy the stock, so a bad day on the Net may have contributed to a bad day on the market.

Tomorrow could be a litmus test on investor commitment to eBay. The company said the earlier outages will cut revenues by $3 million to $5 million in the current quarter. The company reported $34 million in revenues for the quarter ended March 31.

eBay also is clearly worried about potential damage to the loyalty of its users. "We need to demonstrate to our users that we can become that reliable, dependable service that they have known through the years," Pursglove said.

He added that CEO Whitman has issued a clear message to eBay's suppliers: "No vendors are leaving until we get satisfactory answers." Among those getting that message were hardware provider Sun and database software firm Oracle, which has featured eBay and other e-commerce customers in its current ad campaign.

eBay insisted yesterday that the outages have no connection to a site redesign unveiled on Wednesday, and, as it has after previous outages, the company also says the problems are not related to heavy traffic on the site.

On May 20, the eBay site was down for nearly seven hours. At the time, Mike Wilson, senior vice president for product development and site operations, told users that the issue was with CGI and database servers--the same software cited in the two outages this week--and not hardware.

On May 3, eBay suffered a five-hour outage blamed on the failure of a database server's hardware. In December, the site suffered at least three significant outages that disrupted service.

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