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Netscape mail customers frustrated by name game

Almost half a million Netscape WebMail customers are forced to change their email usernames as part of an upgrade, and a software bug shuts some people out of their email entirely.

It's a dose of double trouble for Netscape mail.

Almost half a million Netscape WebMail customers are being forced to change their email usernames as part of an upgrade, and a software bug has shut some people out of their email entirely, the company said today.

Netscape began combining email usernames of Netscape Netcenter, CompuServe and America Online into one database late last week. The move caused overlap in many email usernames, prompting Netscape to notify some customers that they had to change their identities.

Since then, message boards and emails have been full of complaints about WebMail, which was initially billed as a service that lets customers carry the same email address for life.

Of WebMail's more than 6 million account holders, about 480,000 are being forced to change their usernames.

"It's frustrating because this means that I have to contact everyone who has my email address and give them the new one, and that's going to be a headache," said Alison Wojtas, a teacher in Ottawa, Ontario, who was affected by the change. "I picked my username for simplicity--to change it means I have to change my identity."

The upgrade, which will take effect during the next several months, will make the mail system faster, include spam protection, and integrate email with Netscape instant messenger, Netscape spokeswoman Anne Bentley said.

The change was further complicated by a software problem that locked out some users who were trying to pick new usernames.

"We did notice a minor bug as people were changing their usernames; the technical team is working on a fix as we speak," Bentley said today. "We had a small percentage of people who were affected by the bug."

Some customers trying to pick out new usernames got error messages in the middle of the process telling them to try again after 24 hours. "The daily registration limit for your network address has been reached," the messages said. But many people said they still couldn't get into their mail 24 hours later.

Numerous WebMail customers said they were not given proper notice of the address changes, and during the technical difficulties they could not find sufficient answers for the problem.

"I would have understood if Netscape had made mention of the problem on its Web site and that they were working on it, but instead we ran into a brick wall of silence," said email customer Erin Walsh.

Netscape notified customers about the upgrade via email the same day it began, which resulted in some customers not getting the notice at all because they were locked out of their accounts.

Netscape's community message boards--where many people turn for official updates--didn't have any progress reports from Netscape during the weekend but were filled with angry notes from account holders.

"Those of us mandated to make this change are locked out of our email for at least 24 hours by an arbitrary, badly planned, unannounced decision by some executives that don't give a damn how much we depend on our email," read one note. "So, my advice to all WebMail users is this: Get out while you can!"

Netscape's Bentley said the company will automatically forward customer mail for a year.