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Hardware glitch plagues Hotmail

Microsoft's free email product is offering a new "stationery" feature, but many users can't access it while a hardware problem locks them out of their accounts.

Hotmail has rolled out a new "stationery" feature, but some users are finding themselves unable to use it as a new round of service woes is locking them out of their accounts.

Quietly added to Microsoft's MSN Hotmail earlier this month, the "stationery" feature lets users choose from among 17 style templates with various fonts, colors, and graphics.

The stationery feature helps to distinguish Hotmail in the increasingly crowded field of free Web-based email providers, though some messaging services, such as America Online's Instant Messaging client, lets users set background, text color, and font.

Meanwhile, some Hotmail users have encountered problems accessing their accounts in recent days. Several users have reported getting an error message that reads, in part:

"We apologize, but you have caught us in the middle of an upgrade. We do not expect this delay to last much longer, so please continue to check our site for your account status. This maintenance does not affect the entire site or relate specifically to your account, but the machine that holds your account information is temporarily unavailable."

Hotmail yesterday said that there was not an "upgrade" per se, but instead that there was a "hardware problem" that was keeping some users out of their accounts. A spokesperson declined to identify the hardware problem more specifically.

Service woes have dogged Hotmail in recent months as membership swells above 30 million users. Other Web-based emailers have had their share of service problems as well as users flock to the free, ad-driven services.

At the same time, Microsoft has plans to start offering more desktop applications through Hotmail, such as file storage and calendaring.

As for Hotmail's stationery feature, options for style range from "Fun Bus," with black text juxtaposed on brightly colored overlapping squares, to the more sober "Judge" look, with its faux wood and marbelized left-hand margin.

Hotmail's stationery appears to work best when sent from one Hotmail account to another. Sent to a Yahoo Mail account, the colors and font show up but graphics do not, and the message appears first in plain text and then as an attachment. Sent to a standard, non-Web based email client such as Eudora, the message appears as formatted text and graphics appear in a separate .gif attachment.

Sent between Hotmail users, graphics files sit on the Hotmail server in order to save space in users' folders, according to Hotmail.