Members were completely locked out of the system for at least an hour, and many were locked out for two, according to AOL spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg.
The problem originated this morning during AOL's regularly scheduled maintenance from 4 to 7 a.m. ET, when the company upgraded the software for its login machines, Goldberg said.
Later on in the day--starting at 5:10 p.m. ET--"there was a hiccup in the new software," which caused the outage.
While members who were already on the system were able to stay on, everyone else was locked out, she added.
The system started sporadically accepting logins from different parts of the country at 6:30 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., the system was at full capacity, Goldberg said.
Members who called into AOL's phone system were greeted with a recorded voice that said, "America Online is experiencing technical difficulties that may affect your connection to our service. If you are unable to connect right now, please try connecting in an hour. We apologize for any inconvenience this causes you, and thank you for your patience."
But patience is a rare commodity these days among AOL members. In fact, this outage--however short lived--couldn't come at a worse time for the online giant.
AOL is currently recovering from a blistering week of negative publicity. Attorneys general from nearly every state have forced AOL into giving refunds to members who have had trouble dialing into the system since AOL went to unlimited pricing in December.
The publicity generated by AOL's state of affairs means that all eyes are upon it. No doubt, today's crisis will not help matters.
In fact, AOL may be on the brink of disaster. While it skated away from its 19-hour outage last August relatively unscathed, its problems are adding up in the minds of users, said Gary Arlen, an analyst with Arlen Communications.
"AOL can afford some short outages, but they can't afford a series of these," he said. "An outage today is part of the overall bad-service package that's been going on for two months now. Some people may not distinguish between an outage and just difficulty with getting on the system."