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Microsoft still ironing out IM kinks

The software maker says it is working to resolve "issues" with its instant messaging system, including a glitch that disconnects people from the service.

A glitch affecting Microsoft's instant messaging system is preventing some from staying connected to the service.

Problems started as far back as mid-January, with many people reporting similar troubles: Messenger disconnecting without notice anywhere from five minutes to about 15 minutes after signing on, and people occasionally appearing disconnected to their "buddies" even during instant messaging exchanges.

Those people using Windows Messenger, which is only available as part of Microsoft's Windows XP operating system, appear to be suffering the most consistent disconnects. Users of MSN Messenger for Windows and the Mac client software, which can be downloaded from Microsoft's Web site, seem to be less affected by the glitch. Windows Messenger and MSN Messenger technically run on the same messaging network but use different technologies to make and maintain connections.

"Microsoft is aware that some users may be having issues with connectivity, and is currently working to resolve those issues," a company representative said Monday. The representative said Microsoft is also recommending that users of its service download the latest client software.

Though Microsoft technical support has been quick to respond to queries, many affected people complained of conflicting and unhelpful answers from Microsoft's technical support staff, according to comments posted to two Internet newsgroups.

The newest .Net Messenger breakdown could undermine confidence that the company can deliver on a new Web services plan in development. Microsoft is said to be rethinking key parts of that plan.

Many of those services are expected to use Microsoft's Passport authentication to identify people for communicating with Microsoft or third-party service providers.

Microsoft unveiled its consumer Web services strategy--HailStorm, later renamed .Net My Services--nearly a year ago. The company promised more than a dozen personalized Web services, including those for online calendaring and managing contacts. The first service, .Net Alerts, uses instant messaging to track auctions, stocks and local traffic.

The connection problem comes after two problems last week: An Internet worm spread across Microsoft's instant messaging network, replicating itself by sending messages to peoples' buddies, and a JavaScript exploit made it possible for Web sites to pilfer Messenger nicknames and buddy lists.

Other problems have affected the system in recent months. Last summer a weeklong outage gripped Microsoft's Messenger service, putting as many as 10 million people offline. The outage helped rival services to at least temporarily gain customers in the highly competitive instant messaging market.

"It sounds like they're overtaxing the system. They don't have the capacity," said Matt Rosoff, an analyst with market analysis firm Directions on Microsoft.

Mary Carolan, a senior vice president with a training company in Northbrook, Ill., uses Windows Messenger 4.6, which is the latest version available. Like other people affected by the problem, she says her connection drops without notice.

"If I am a typical example, there are probably hundreds if not thousands of people this is happening to, but they are either unaware of it or they just chalk it up to a bad connection with their pals in Europe, Japan, etc.," Carolan said.

"It looks to me that I am logged in. To my contacts, I am not logged in, so they send me a message to my mobile phone," she said. "That's how I usually find out that I'm not connected. Then, I log off and log back on in order to chat."

Carolan said MSN Mobile Messenger for cell phones appeared to work fine for her.

Charles Kelsoe, a computer consultant living in Charlotte, N.C., has been battling Windows Messenger disconnections since mid-January.

"For the first week or so, I took no action since I knew Microsoft was 'upgrading' the Messenger services and (I) figured that this issue was a temporary one," he said. "Finally after several weeks, I tried contacting Messenger support." Those inquiries generated little help, he said.

Newsgroup postings and e-mail received from Microsoft technical support indicate several possible reasons for the disconnections. Kelsoe was told the problem was with Windows XP. A Microsoft response to a CNET News.com inquiry last week indicated a different problem. "Recently, we encountered a technical problem that affected a small number of users on the specific system that contains your account," the e-mail stated. "The problem affects the information that allows you to sign-in to the MSN Messenger Service."

Others affected complain of similar problems, including one in which Messenger reconnects after a person has manually shut down the program after a random disconnection. Some people are also sporadically unable to change their status, such as to "Away" from "Online," and others say they appear as if they are offline when indeed they are connected.

"Sometimes when chatting, my contacts tell me that my status is not online when we are, in fact, connected," Carolan said. "It is very confusing...I even went back to an older version of Messenger, to no avail."