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Sales lead to WebTV service snags

WebTV users experience delays in accessing the Net, apparently due to increased numbers following strong holiday sales.

    WebTV users have been experiencing delays in accessing the Net, apparently because the number of subscribers has increased following strong holiday sales of the first-generation set-top device.

    The Palo Alto, California, company described holiday sales as "brisk" and attributed service problems to unscheduled server maintenance. "We're fine-tuning the equipment we added to our network service to accommodate the increase in subscribers prior to Christmas," a company spokesman said.

    But users are criticizing the company's failure to anticipate the added demand. "We were led to believe that WebTV was preparing for the past few months for the new customer surge at the holiday time," one reader told NEWS.COM.

    Access delays owing to maintenance began last Tuesday and ended yesterday, according to WebTV. "There may be some future work but that doesn't look likely," the spokesman said.

    Users already logged on to the service were not interrupted, he said.

    WebTV could not identify the number of affected users. The company projects its subscriber base will reach 250,000 by year's end, up from just under 200,000 in late November. Research firm Paul Kagan & Associates put the number at 160,000 earlier this month.

    WebTV, a relatively inexpensive set-top device used to access the Web and email, comes in two versions, the "classic" model and the recently introduced WebTV Plus model. The latter's limited availability during the holiday shopping season seems to have spurred sales of the first-generation product, since the $299 retail price of WebTV Plus drove the cost of the classic model to $100 and lower.

    WebTV Plus allows users to surf the Web and watch TV at the same time; users have to choose one or the other with classic WebTV. Classic WebTV boxes also have no hard drive and less memory.

    WebTV, which is owned by Microsoft, does not actually manufacture the devices, but rather licenses the product design to companies such as Sony and Mitsubishi. WebTV provides Internet access through some 2,600 local providers as well as interactive content, such as TV listings.

    Although the scale is much smaller, WebTV's plight is reminiscent of America Online's struggle to service users when the online giant changed to flat-rate pricing in December 1996, a move that attracted hordes of new customers. AOL was forced to give refunds and online credit to members who were locked out of AOL's system by busy signals.