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Critical Path's slowdowns a serious condition

The company's recent struggles continue as potentially hundreds of thousands of customers are locked out of their email boxes or suffer hour-long delays in service.

The struggle to provide email service continues for Critical Path as potentially hundreds of thousands of customers have been locked out of their email boxes or have suffered hour-long delays in service.

The latest in the six-week long series of technical problems came Tuesday when many Critical Path customers were unable to receive email or enter their inbox, according to executives at two companies that hired Critical Path to provide Web hosting and email services.

On Tuesday, one of the companies, Canada.com, a Toronto-based news portal that also offers free email service, discovered that customers were unable to access saved messages or their address books.

Critical Path chief executive Doug Hickey confirmed that there was a service interruption to one of the company's nine operating systems.

"The problem has been isolated," Hickey said. "We found a fix. We've seen performance characteristics last night and today that that lead us to believe the worst is behind us."

At a time when a host of large and small companies are offering email services, prolonged technical troubles could harm the company's reputation unless they are fixed soon, industry analysts say.

"There are too many competitors out there that can take their business away," Jupiter Communications' analyst Preston Dodd said. "The reliability question in this industry should be a given."

Almost two weeks ago, Critical Path said that about 1.2 million of the 6.7 million mailboxes the company provides service to experienced "slow downs" or long delays receiving email. Critical Path customers include such companies as E*Trade, US West and Sprint.

In that instance, Critical Path executives blamed sharp increases in email traffic for overloading its system.

In September the company acknowledged that a security hole was found it its email systems, which allowed access to a user's account without requiring a password. To prevent that from happening again, the San Francisco-based company last month acquired Xeti, a developer of email security software.

Critical Path executives were not available for comment today.

According to Marlise Nishikihama, director of marketing for Canada.com, Critical Path technicians told her that the problem will be fixed by Saturday. This is the second complication that Canada.com has experienced since teaming with Critical Path in October, but Nishikihama said that Canada.com remains committed to staying with Critical Path.

"Ultimately we feel that it is a better service," Nishikihama said. "It's generally more efficient than our previous service."

An executive at another company that contracts with Critical Path, who wished to remain anonymous, said customers at that company were without email service for at least five hours on Tuesday--one of the half-dozen service delays the company's experienced in the past six weeks.

Critical Path representatives have previously denied that the company's email systems have ever suffered complete outages. Today, Hickey acknowledged that they had.

"We know this has caused some of our customers some heartburn," Hickey said. "I don't take this lightly. I'm not trying to hide behind anything. We take this very seriously and we're going to fix it."

(CNET, publisher of News.com, holds an equity stake in Mail.com, a competitor of Critical Path.)