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Microsoft networking gear disconnects

As the company begins its push into the market for home-networking hardware, its new products are having trouble keeping computers connected.

    As Microsoft begins its push into the market for home-networking gear, its new products are having trouble keeping computers connected.

    Users have reported a myriad of problems, all involving dropped connections, and most affecting the company's MN-500 Wireless Base Station and MN-100 10/100 Ethernet Wired Base Station. Some users said connections were failing every half hour.

    A Microsoft representative confirmed the troubles Monday and said the company planned to issue a firmware update to correct them. The representative also said a tech-support document with a work-around will be posted on Microsoft's Web site within 48 hours.

    The problems give the Redmond, Wash.-based technology titan a bad mark just as it jumps into a new, and highly competitive, product category. Microsoft unveiled 10 wired and wireless home-networking products in mid-September. Retailers started selling the gear around Oct. 1. The company is betting on the delivery of digital content over the Internet and the redistribution of that content over a home network to be the central driver behind the next wave of PC sales.

    "You always expect everybody to test everything to the nth degree," NPDTechworld analyst Stephen Baker said. "But that doesn't always happen, nor is it always possible. So stuff slips through. On the other hand, if you're going to enter a new category and you have the kind of reputation Microsoft does...people are going to feel uncomfortable."

    Baker noted that networking is "more complicated than any other hardware category" Microsoft has gotten into so far. The company also markets mice, keyboards and gaming gear. "They're not the only people to have problems or unexpected glitches," Baker said.

    Users said a common problem with the gear involves the dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) used to assign a unique network ID, or Internet protocol (IP) address, to computers. Typically the glitch prevents computers from maintaining a connection to the router or the Internet service provider (ISP).

    Some customers posting comments on Microsoft's broadband networking newsgroup report connections dropping as often as every 30 minutes. Restarting the networking gear is typically the best way to temporarily restore connectivity.

    Ian Storrs, a software consulting engineer from Cary, N.C., has been having intermittent problems with a MN-100 base station.

    "The unit locks up every two days," Storrs said. "The symptoms are that the unit will not renew DHCP leases if configured for DHCP, or will not respond to pings on the LAN (local area network) ports if configured for static IP addresses."

    "Apart from these lockups, the unit works well and has superior throughput to that of my previous routers from SMC and D-Link," Storrs said. "However this issue is so disruptive that I am seriously considering returning the device. Microsoft needs to acknowledge this issue and provide a timeframe for a firmware update to avoid a negative customer response."

    Arlington, Va.-based Alexander Skinner, who is the CEO of an independent software development company, has had connectivity problems with the MN-500 wireless base station. He has already returned one malfunctioning model.

    Like others having problems with the wireless MN-500, Skinner said connections were likely to be disrupted when transferring files from one computer to another.

    "I started with a 150MB file (transfer) from my server to my laptop via wireless," Skinner said. "Windows XP estimated a 3-minute transfer." But after "around one minute, the wireless connection dropped." Skinner restarted the MN-500 and attempted to repeat the process several times, but with no luck. "I decided at this point, using wireless for mass data transfers was not worth it and connected a cable," Skinner said.

    "This router has left its beta testing phase a little too early, or there is some bad hardware floating around," Skinner added.

    Another common problem customers complained about was the wireless or wired base station losing connection with the ISP. Like the other connectivity issues, only powering off and restarting the networking gear would resolve the problem.

    The problems are unfortunate for Microsoft because of the importance the company is placing on networking, say analysts. Tight integration between Windows and the networking gear would seem to be a plus for Microsoft in selling its networking products and helping to connect homes to broadband DSL or cable.

    "They have the advantage of being able to integrate all of that with the operating system, and have all that knowledge there," NPDTechworld's Baker said. "You think they would be able to leverage that to bring something that worked out of the blocks."

    It's uncertain what impact the problems could have on a promotion designed to spur broadband adoption and its supporting networking gear. In late September, Microsoft offered MSN 8 broadband subscribers a discount on the MN-500 Wireless Base Station. Microsoft will officially launch MSN 8 on Oct. 24, during a New York gala hosted by Chairman Bill Gates.

    At retail, where the majority of Microsoft's wireless networking products are sold, competition is fierce. Linksys leads the overall retail wireless networking market by a huge margin. For the year to date, the company claimed 46.4 percent market share, as measured in dollars, according to NPDTechworld. D-Link trails a distant second with 14.6 percent share, followed by Belkin at 9.8 percent share. NetGear is ranked fourth with 7.9 percent market share and Siemens and SMC are tied for fifth place, each with 5.9 percent share.