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WebTV outage strikes again

For the second time in seven days, users of the Internet access device found their on-ramp online was down.

For the second time in seven days, users of WebTV's Internet access devices found their on-ramp online was down.

According to WebTV executives, the outage started yesterday at around 3:30 p.m. PT and lasted until 5:30 p.m., when the company powered down its network to bring new server computers online to handle recent increases in customer usage. The servers are powerful computers that handle the flow of information from the Internet to devices such as WebTV's set-top box.

Microsoft, which purchased WebTV last year for $425 million in an effort to expand its reach into the consumer electronics market, said a two-hour outage last week took place when a server was brought down for unscheduled maintenance. In both cases, company representatives say users had problems logging on to the service both before and after the outages, as network capacity reached its limits.

WebTV said an unexpectedly large number of new users have swamped the system. "Recently, we've had a flood of people coming in. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough server capacity for yesterday," said an apologetic Steve Perlman, president of WebTV Networks.

Normally, WebTV expects to experience the most growth in the fall and Christmas months, he added, and server installations are planned accordingly to handle the additional load. Unseasonably strong sales have forced the company to add new capacity to the service.

According to Perlman, the service now has 400,000 users. Analysts' most recent estimates had counted some 350,000 customers, and previously the company counted some 250,000 during last year's Christmas selling season. The executive attributed the growth spurt to finally having enough units available in retail stores from manufacturers Sony, Philips, and Mitsubishi.

"We're trying to best we can, and it hurts us a lot when the service doesn't run perfectly. It's gotten to the point where it really matters when service goes down," Perlman noted.

Such problems aren't new for the fledgling consumer service. WebTV experienced similar problems in December, again due to unexpectedly strong sales.

Because WebTV has not been in business very long, the company has had trouble forecasting service demand. While such difficulties apparently are not turning off new users yet, consumers expect home electronics being more reliable than computers. Any disenchantment with the emerging array of information appliances could limit their appeal to the mass market.