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Hotmail users inured to frequent outages

Many consumers of Microsoft's popular Web property say they've come to expect as much from the free e-mail service and don't rely on it for urgent missives.

4 min read
Inconvenienced, yet again.

That was a prevailing attitude Wednesday among users of Hotmail, Microsoft's Web-based service that boasts 84 million free e-mail accounts.

Ironically, a Microsoft spokesman could not confirm whether Wednesday's outage that blocked access to many of the company's Web sites, such as MSN.com and Expedia, also brought down Hotmail. The reason: Hotmail is often inaccessible.

"I am not sure if there are intermittent problems that are due to (Wednesday's outage) or just the normal difficulties that sometimes occur with Hotmail," said Microsoft spokesman Adam Sohn.

Microsoft receives calls every day from people complaining about Hotmail, which the company agreed to purchase for nearly $400 million on Dec. 31, 1997. "It's hard to tell if we are getting any more or any less (calls) today," he said.

Numerous people who couldn't access their accounts told CNET News.com they were not angry or overly annoyed; in fact, many said they have come to expect as much from Hotmail and don't rely on it for urgent missives. The site--among Microsoft's most popular Web properties--has been plagued by inconsistent service, lost e-mail, sluggish delivery and customer complaints for months.

Many Internet users also said they have heeded warnings by security analysts and other e-commerce experts to use Web-based e-mail services from Hotmail, Yahoo and others as backup accounts. They recommend paying Internet service providers for a primary home account or, when appropriate, relying on a corporate e-mail account from an employer.

Nelson Lode, a Los Angeles resident studying in Brazil, said Hotmail should serve as an easy way to keep in touch with friends back in the United States because, in theory, he could send and receive e-mail from anywhere he traveled. But he has largely used a paid e-mail account from a Brazilian ISP, Universo Online, because he said his Hotmail account was too unreliable.

"I just got it because Microsoft forces you to sign for one to be able to access the MSN Messenger service," he wrote via e-mail. "I don't use my Hotmail account, so no inconvenience on that side, and I don't do it for this particular reason: not having access if there is a problem with the provider. So I agree with the experts that say it should be used for low-priority messages."

Andrew Gray of White Rock, Canada, was equally blasé about Hotmail's failure Wednesday.

"I do not trust it, being free, and expect my paid service to handle what (messages) I consider critical to running my business and for general communication," Gray wrote via e-mail. "I could not ask this of a free service."

Although few Hotmail users were outwardly irate at the lack of service, the outage is likely to be a disservice to customer relations. Experts say consumers' generally low expectations aren't likely to remain that way forever--especially as Hotmail rival Yahoo tries to grow market share.

"I know personally several people who have switched to Yahoo because it's much better in terms of mail access. They have a more distributed service," said Sujata Ramnarayan, senior analyst for Gartner. "As long as people think there are no alternatives, people will accept what they're getting. It means there's an opportunity for someone else to step in."

Yahoo is not without problems, either. In September, Yahoo Mail suffered a one-two punch as the free Web-based e-mail site acknowledged it had been arbitrarily bouncing incoming messages and that its servers were on the blink.

A history of glitches
Hotmail also has a long history of shutting out consumers without warning.

A portion of Hotmail members were shut out of their e-mail accounts for several days starting Dec. 5 because of system upgrades. A spokesman tried to soothe locked-out consumers by saying that MSN services were periodically taken offline "in ongoing efforts to continue to improve the Hotmail service."

The company suffered a similar outage just over a year ago when it failed to pay a $35 registration fee for the domain name Passport.com. Passport.com, the authentication service for Hotmail, verifies usernames and passwords. A Linux programmer noticed the problem and paid the $35 registration fee for the domain name, and an embarrassed Microsoft later reimbursed him.

Web-based e-mail has also come under attack by security analysts. During an attack on Microsoft's network in October, sources close to the company blamed Web-based e-mail.

Although e-mail coming through server-based messaging systems, such as Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes, is checked for viruses or malicious programs, Web-based e-mail is typically an open door.

Detecting unwelcome programs would then depend on the computer's own scanning software. Many PCs on networks use antivirus software, but most do not have personal firewall programs to scan for intrusions, security experts say.

"One huge, gaping hole--and oddly enough, Microsoft runs one of the hugest gaping holes--is Web-based e-mail services like Hotmail," Gartner security analyst John Pescatore said at the time.

Staff writer Robert Lemos contributed to this report.