Microsoft said Thursday its sites were attacked by hackers--a prank that came on the heels of what Microsoft called an unrelated router configuration error that disabled its Web sites on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Although Microsoft executives insisted Thursday afternoon that its Web sites had returned to normal, reports from South Africa to San Francisco streamed into CNET News.com complaining of continued outages.
The outages showed how quickly problems in the highly interconnected technology industry spread--a widening ripple effect emanating from Microsoft's headquarters in Redmond, Wash., to information technology departments, customer call centers, offices and homes. Managers of technology departments around the world were among the first to complain Wednesday as their call centers were bombarded with questions from confused customers.
The group of complainers got larger and louder Thursday, when more individuals felt the sting. Underscoring how central the Internet has become to people's professional and personal lives, the outages highlighted how Microsoft patrons rely on the software company's sites for activities ranging from technical support and urgent e-mail to interactive games and stock quotes.
Microsoft operates some of the world's most popular Web sites, and the company has boasted that its suite of sites is more popular than rival services from America Online and Yahoo. According to Media Metrix, Microsoft's Web suite received 53.8 million unique visitors in December, making it the third most popular group of Web properties.
The problems snarled Asheron's Call, a so-called massive multiplayer role-playing game (MMRPG) hosted on Microsoft's Gaming Zone. The outage seemed to have caused the game's central clock to shut down temporarily, resulting in what gamers call a "rollback"--a turning backward of the official clock, which could cause unfair advantages or stealth moves for some players.
"It was unusual on Tuesday night that that specific game was down for the second time in about a week due to bugs discovered in the game that allowed players to exploit it," said MMPRG aficionado Tom Holmes of Orlando, Fla. "I attempted to log onto the zone and was unable to reach the Web site. I tried a number of different routes and then all of the Microsoft Web sites that I could think of, even going to far as to reboot my machine, but was unable to get through."
Craig Good of Ottawa, Ohio, uses Microsoft sites for a more mainstream hobby: keeping up with stock prices. When MSN went down, so did his path of least resistance to his investment portfolio.
"While the absence of this information is not life-threatening, it does hinder my ability to monitor stock trading and manage my portfolio during my breaks," Good said. "Since I do not watch evening news on TV nor listen to news radio broadcasts, I find all news information on my home page or ActiveDesktop MS Investor headlines."
Although the information is easily available elsewhere, he was annoyed because he had the MSN sites bookmarked. Like Good, hundreds of thousands of people have come to rely on the Internet for real-time news instead of using traditional sources such as newspapers, radio and television, just as they rely on e-mail over posted letters.
Attorney Greg Mullanax of Fort Worth, Texas, said several clients with MSN accounts have had difficulty accessing accounts.
"We send encrypted files back and forth. These files are often contracts or proposals," Mullanax wrote. "This has created concern because we are not sure where our files that have been sent are. For example, if I sent a file from an AOL account to a client's MSN account, and my client is unable to access his or her account, did the file reach its destination? Will it be there when access is restored? These are our main concerns now, and even though our files are encrypted, it does make me and my clients nervous."
Benefit of the doubt
Still, several Microsoft fans were quick to cut the software giant a break, and with good reason: Virtually all Web sites crash occasionally, for reasons ranging from power outages and server breakdowns to hack attacks and inexplicable crises.
Gerald Altieri, a network system engineer in Roseville, Calif., was annoyed with the high volume of complaints from customers. Irate callers bombarded the call center and blamed Roseville OnLine for their problems with MSN sites. He also called it a "great hardship" that he cannot track his personal stock portfolio on MoneyCentral. But he said that the outage doesn't make him run to competitors.
"This outage does not warrant us to look for alternatives," Alteiri wrote. "The Microsoft product and Web sites have been a great help to us in the Internet business and we will continue to support them and plan to continue and recommend the use of their solutions despite the recent problems."
Besides, Microsoft boosters said, it's not as if Microsoft's sites are the only means of obtaining certain critical information. When developers cannot access Microsoft Knowledge Base or Microsoft Developers sites, they may go to search engines such as Google.com, which caches Web sites and can find it in an accessible format for the users even if the Microsoft site is down.
But the embarrassing and potentially costly outages came at an inauspicious time for Microsoft, which recently launched a $150 million global advertising campaign for its MSN service. MSN.com received $33 million in ad revenue in November, according to AdZone Interactive. MSN has about 4 million subscribers and is trying to gain market share against general-interest portals such as AOL Time Warner's AOL.com.
The attack also comes as Microsoft is trying to increase the number of subscribers to Hotmail, its free, Web-based e-mail system--a lucrative source of revenue from advertisers attracted to Hotmail's 84 million accounts. Hotmail received $22.3 million in ad revenue in November, according to AdZone.
Although many Hotmail users are accustomed to frequent outages and were blasé about Hotmail's failure this week, analysts said that the inconsistent service provides a foothold for rivals to gain inconvenienced customers.
"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."
Ryan McNeish has become a defector. The San Francisco-based software developer uses MoneyCentral Investor to track his investment accounts and has certain stocks programmed into a "Watch" function.
"I have not been able to do that in the past few days on Investor, so I decided to re-enter all of my account information on Yahoo investor," McNeish wrote, adding that he also booked an upcoming trip to Las Vegas on Travelocity instead of his usual travel site, Expedia. "I am hoping that Yahoo has better managed their DNS servers so they can't be plagued by these same issues. If it is really true that MS put all of their servers on the same physical network, that really saps the confidence I had in their technical abilities to run a 24/7 Web presence."
Other popular Microsoft sites that generate advertising revenue, such as Expedia, HomeAdvisor, CarPoint, MoneyCentral and other e-commerce and finance sites, were also down or functioning sporadically. That means Microsoft is likely to take a financial hit from lost ad revenue and revenue derived from transactions that couldn't be completed online because of the outage.
Outages are likely to provoke more outrage in upcoming years, when Microsoft is expected to integrate its popular software with the Internet and possibly allow people to access programs through a Web browser such as Internet Explorer. Currently, fans of the popular Microsoft Word and Outlook open programs that are installed on the hard drive, so they function smoothly even if the computer cannot connect with the Web.
The outage also shows how companies that transfer reference manuals online are particularly vulnerable to malfunctioning Web sites. Although Microsoft provides CD-ROMs and DVDs for some reference material, many developers use the Web sites as the first route for help.
"Since Microsoft, along with other software developers, are starting to move their documentation online, as opposed to providing manuals for software, I am constantly on their site," said Kevin Schroeder, a freelance programmer in Winnipeg, Manitoba. "Had I been building an application...it would stand to reason that I could have lost quite a few hundred dollars in the first day alone if there were a substantial amount of information on the Web site that I needed that was inaccessible...Fortunately I'm working on a project right now that is strictly Unix based so the outage hasn't affected me much."
The outage also drained confidence in Microsoft for Anthony Robinson, a database developer for Adaytum of Minneapolis, Minn. On Tuesday, Robinson planned to consult Microsoft's Web sites for technical assistance.
"I encountered a cryptic (understatement) error message from SQL Server," Robinson wrote via e-mail. "When I looked up this error message in Books Online, I was told to consult the Microsoft Web site. Guess what? That's right--not jack!! I have essentially been sitting twiddling my thumbs for the last two days. Way to go Microsoft."
Kathleen Moran of Revere, Mass., an administrative assistant for the state of Massachusetts, spoke for many people who use Microsoft sites for services ranging from Hotmail to news updates.
"For the entire realm of Microsoft services on the Internet to be down because of one technician's error for close to 24 hours is unheard of in this technological age," Moran said. "Now that this has happened, it should be a wake-up call for them to solve these ever increasing problems with Microsoft and the Internet."