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WebTV outage shows PC-TV kinks

The service goes down for hours, and some unable to watch TV at all--a sign that so-called convergence won't come without glitches.

Users of WebTV's Internet access devices got an unpleasant surprise last night.

Not only did the network go down for several hours, but a few users were unable to watch television at all--a sign that the kinks still need to be worked out in the ballyhooed convergence of the PC and television.

"This outage itself isn't a tragedy, but there are whole new standards about reliability. If this happened during Seinfeld, that'd be the end of convergence," said Sean Kaldor, an analyst with International Data Corporation.

The outage occurred at 7:30 p.m. PT when a server was brought down for unscheduled maintenance. For the next two hours, WebTV customers were unable to gain Internet access, according to a company representative.

The system was brought back online at around 9:30 p.m. but was not at full capacity for two more hours, meaning that most users were unable to use the service for about four hours. To make matters worse, some WebTV Plus users couldn't return to normal TV viewing during the outage if they tried to log onto the network.

"The outage was related to a high number of new people signing up for service. That creates a strain when it happens in great numbers. We've had record-breaking sales recently," said the WebTV representative.

Analysts estimate that WebTV has some 350,000 customers; an unknown percentage of users were affected by the outage. While the WebTV outage certainly does not compare to May's satellite glitch, which caused tens of millions of pagers to fall silent, it does raise issues regarding the attempt of PC companies to sell consumers devices that meld computer-like functions with TVs.

Customers most affected by yesterday's outage were those who have the WebTV Plus unit. Unlike the first version of the WebTV, the newer version has a TV tuner card which enables picture-in-picture viewing capabilities.

One customer noted that he was unable to use his television as a result of the outage. The WebTV Plus unit would automatically start to dial up the service, but once the dial-up process started it could not be interrupted. This prevented access to the TV unless the unit was completely unhooked.

A representative said that only users with new Plus units that had not been registered would experience this problem, although the problem appeared to affect other WebTV Plus customers as well.

A source close to WebTV, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed doubt that the unit could lock someone out of TV viewing mode. When the unit is turned on, a user is supposed to have to press a button on the keyboard or remote to switch to and from the WebTV environment, the source said.

Even if the unit could lock someone out, hooking the device up to the audio-video connectors instead of the cable connector would prevent such a problem because the TV itself would switch to view the unit--much as it switches viewing to VCR mode.

Microsoft purchased WebTV last year for $425 million, as part of its effort to expand the reach of the Windows operating system into the consumer electronics market. Now the company is trying to muscle into the digital TV set-top boxes.

Set-tops translate signals from the cable company for display and there are plans to add new functions such as Internet access. However, consumers are used to TV sets being many times more reliable than a personal computer and may grow disenchanted if forced to "restart" the TV, as computer users are accustomed to doing when a program fails to run properly and freezes up the system.

"When you talk about convergence, be careful of what future may hold. You can get benefits of combining television and the Internet, but you can get downside of both if you are not careful of implementation," Kaldor added.