MSN Messenger users started experiencing trouble Tuesday, with the most commonly reported glitches being connection problems and missing buddy lists of friends. Microsoft temporarily took MSN Messenger offline around 3 p.m. PDT Thursday in an attempt to fix the problem. Although the company had partially restored the service in many countries by Friday morning, problems still plagued many customers Monday.
After MSN Messenger users complained about poor communication, Microsoft on Friday--the fourth day of the outage--started posting routine service updates on the messenger support page. In a statement released around 4:30 p.m. Saturday, MSN Vice President Richard Bray acknowledged Microsoft had failed to make good on its promise "to restore all service to MSN Messenger customers by end of day Friday, July 6. At this point, we are pleased that we have been successful in restoring service to nearly all of our customers."
But frustrated MSN Messenger customers continued to send e-mail to CNET News.com about the same rate as Saturday, with most complaining of having no access to their instant messaging accounts. The first reports of restored service, including recovered buddy lists, started trickling in Sunday morning.
The outage appears to be widespread, with problem reports coming from people in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Chile, the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands, Finland, Austria, Egypt, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and at least a half-dozen other countries.
As the outage continues, analysts and Microsoft customers are also questioning the viability of the company's new Web services initiatives that rely on instant messaging, such as Microsoft.Net and HailStorm.
Microsoft had been fairly tight-lipped about the problem until Friday around 11:30 a.m., when Bray issued a lengthy statement. He acknowledged that service interruptions had been ongoing for several days. He also admitted that "for a brief period of time yesterday, it was necessary for us to reboot and restore all of our MSN Messenger servers as part of our efforts to restore service to all customers."
Bray emphasized that the "issue which caused this service interruption has been identified." He described it as "an extremely rare set of circumstances that occurred when one of our database servers had a disk controller fail. The backup for this controller also had an error occur which resulted in a more lengthy path to full service recovery."
Microsoft estimated that about two-thirds of MSN Messenger customers currently have full access to the service but acknowledged that some people would continue to experience connection problems and lost buddy lists until the service is fully restored.
"We are in the process of restoring the backup data for the remaining customers who are still experiencing the service outage," Bray said.
Say something, please
MSN Messenger users on Friday expressed their frustration that Microsoft had not been forthcoming sooner. Erick Houli, an MSN Messenger user from Caracas, Venezuela, said he had access to one of two accounts and that his "buddy list seems to be intact." Houli, who started having service trouble last Monday, criticized Microsoft's customer-service operation.
"Microsoft has not published any information on the Net about this service outage, not even on their MSN site," he said Friday morning, hours before Microsoft issued a statement on the service outage's fourth day. "And there is no e-mail where you can ask what's going on or even complain about the service."
Philippe Caillet, a 20-year user of Microsoft products in Paris, slammed the company for its communication skills.
"What is more outrageous is the lack of information on MSN.com," he said. "If they can't handle such crisis communication for a simple matter--everyone has experienced down servers once in their life--what will happen when Microsoft will integrate instant messaging in the core of Windows XP?"
Similar sentiments came from the other side of the English Channel. "All everybody is asking is that Microsoft posts a notice on the Web or the MSN server to say that the server is down," Mike John, a user of the messaging service in the United Kingdom, said Friday morning. "This is only common courtesy and respect."
Raining on HailStorm
While Microsoft struggles to resolve this short-term crisis, long term the outage casts a shadow over some of the company's newest technologies and initiatives that use instant messaging.
In March, Microsoft unveiled HailStorm, one of the cornerstones of the company's .Net software-as-a-service strategy. Through HailStorm, Microsoft hopes to deliver e-commerce services, address books online, and password management to disparate devices such as PCs, handhelds or cell phones.
Microsoft is integrating HailStorm into many new products such as Windows XP, the Xbox game console, and the Stinger cell phone.
HailStorm, in part, relies on instant messaging.
At the launch event, Microsoft introduced several companies that agreed to use HailStorm services as part of their business operations. In the case of American Express, the company planned to authenticate some online Blue Card purchases using Microsoft's Passport authentication system and dispatch some customer-service communication over MSN Messenger. For example, customers could be notified of suspicious purchases by way of instant messaging.
In May, McAfee.com also signed on to HailStorm, with plans to deliver its customers virus warnings via MSN Messenger.
Technology Business Research analyst Lindy Lesperance said the length of the MSN Messenger outage calls into question the service's reliability for such an ambitious project as HailStorm.
"It's bad timing because Microsoft is putting forth these new initiatives," she said. "If the fundamental service behind it isn't reliable, it certainly takes the value proposition away from it or the functionality of the whole HailStorm offering."
Kent Davis, an MSN Messenger user from Tyler, Texas, said the service outage reflects poorly on HailStorm.
"What does the Microsoft Messenger Service outage say about using .Net services?" he asked. "If the developer of the service can't give redundant access, how can all of the small .Net service providers afford to? And what about the users of the service? (It) sounds like a major problem for HailStorm. It may have just got rained on."
But Forrester Research analyst Bob Zurek said that no company should expect rock-solid reliability out of instant messaging, because the technology isn't designed to deliver the security many businesses depend on.
"Companies that are operating on public networks are going to run into these issues, and people are going to have to bear with it," he said. "People have to know what they're getting into. You lose your buddy list; you have to get used to it. It's like if you're in California, and the power goes off; you just don't have a lot of control over that."
No business as usual
For companies that already rely on MSN Messenger for business, the length of the outage has dealt them a heavy blow.
Jean-Luc Praz, a freelance Web designer from Chile, said, "MSN Messenger is an important part of my business, with customers located very far from my office." The outage affected an online meeting with a customer "in his office 12,000 kilometers away from me," he said. "I find it pretty amazing that a company like Microsoft with an army of software engineers is not able to fix a problem in a service three days after it appeared."
Zurek emphasized that consumers have instant messaging alternatives such as AOL Time Warner or Yahoo. "If Microsoft can't ensure reliability--meaning the system is consistently failing--consumers will go somewhere else."
Praz decided to use Yahoo as a backup service this week. "I had to use contingency procedures using Yahoo Messenger and ICQ to face this situation." But the time lost switching customers over to alternative services cost him. "I just can't stress enough the need for all people around to have a backup procedure in case things go belly-up like today," he added.
Wes Thierry, who in San Leandro, Calif., works for a division of Salt Lake City-based Evans and Sutherland, said the outage has caused hardship.
"We decided on using the messenger about three months ago," he said. "Our group consists of about 30 people, most of which are software engineers, and messaging allows us the ability to quickly ask simple questions without necessarily having to distract people with phone calls all of the time." Six workers in the San Francisco Bay Area also rely on MSN Messenger to get "that real office feeling," he added.
Zurek believes that no matter how great the customer frustration, MSN Messenger should be fully operational soon. "Microsoft has smart people. I'm optimistic they'll get this solved," he said.
Still, the MSN Messenger outage leaves questions unanswered. Many people reported a string of secondary problems, such as the inability to access Hotmail accounts, lost MSN Calendar data, or the inability to download software from the Microsoft Developer Network Web site. All share one common thread: Passport authentication.
Andrzej Bania, who works for an Internet media design company in London, said Microsoft's lack of communication about the service interruption is frustrating.
"The problem is that the lack of feedback means that we do not know if they have been hacked, suffered serious hardware failure, (or) are upgrading in preparation for integrating messaging services for Xbox, etc."