Microsoft owes a small debt of gratitude to a lone Linux programmer.
The software giant confirmed today that its popular Hotmail email network was partially paralyzed over the Christmas holiday when it failed to pay a $35 registration fee for the domain name Passport.com.
As previously reported, the oversight was remedied by Linux programmer Michael Chaney, who covered the payment with his personal credit card. Within hours, Hotmail was back online.
Deanna Sanford, lead product manager for Microsoft's online service, MSN, said that the company is "profusely grateful" to Chaney. She said the company has offered to repay the $35.
"We did confirm he paid the bill for us," she said.
The episode is the most embarrassing so far to hit the free email service, which has been dogged by complaints about outages, security breaches and bulk email, known as spam.
According to Sanford, Microsoft became aware of problems with Hotmail in the early evening of Dec. 24. The company traced the problem to the delinquent Passport.com account with domain name registrar Network Solutions by the next day.
When the company tried to bring the bill up to date, however, employees discovered it had been paid, Sanford said.
"[Chaney] beat us to it," she said.
Sanford estimated that as many as half of Hotmail's 52 million active users may have been affected by the glitch, although she said it was impossible to know for sure.
Passport.com, the authentication service for Hotmail, verifies usernames and passwords. When the domain name lapsed, users seeking to access their accounts may have received an error message indicating that the domain was unavailable.
Users already logged on to the service would not have been affected. Users whose login information was available from another location through a process known as caching also would not have noticed a disruption in service. In addition, knowledgeable users could have accessed the site by writing their own login script and including their password and username.
Sanford said that because not all of the Hotmail servers were affected by the problem, not all of Hotmail's users had difficulties. She added that updates to the system frequently take hours to take effect, making it difficult to judge exactly when the problem started or ended.
Sanford said the company is investigating how payment for the Passport.com domain name, which the company acquired last year, was allowed to slip.
For his part, Chaney said he was pleased with how the company has handled the situation.
"This was a fairly major outage on their part," he said. "It's nice to see it have a good conclusion."
Chaney said that John Pope, product manager for Microsoft Passport, called today to thank him for his actions, explain the problem, and offer to pay him back.
In the meantime, Chaney said he is enjoying the 15 minutes of fame the situation has brought him and is celebrating with his wife the birth of his first child, Michael Jr., who was born just over a week ago.
After dropping out of college more than a decade ago, Chaney says he worked in numerous computing jobs, including a stint at Indiana University in Bloomington. About five years ago he went into private consulting, putting up his shingle in Nashville, Tenn., and offering expertise in Unix and Microsoft Windows.
He said he looked into the Linux movement several years ago, but he only got serious about it with the emergence of commercial Linux provider Red Hat. Linux is an open source operating system that competes with Windows and is growing in popularity.
As for Microsoft's promised check, Chaney said he plans to frame it.
"I'm not going to cash it," he said, "unless it's a huge amount."
Pointing out the value of restoring service to millions of Microsoft customers and the preservation of advertising revenues, Chaney suggested that his Christmas charity is arguably worth more than a simple thanks.
"In a perfect world, I wish they'd take that into account," he said. "But I'm not relying on it. It's their choice."