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Microsoft Says Human Error Caused IM Outage

Five-hour disruption of service could hurt efforts to convince businesses that instant messaging is reliable.

InformationWeek Staff

January 8, 2003

3 Min Read

Microsoft says that human error was the cause of a five-hour outage to its .Net Messenger instant message service.

Technicians were installing routers to upgrade the .Net Messenger service, which underlies both Windows Messenger and MSN Messenger. The technicians incorrectly configured the routers. Service was out from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern time on Monday. Ironically, the routers were being installed to make the service more reliable.

"We are looking at internal processes to make sure nothing like this ever happens again. It was a serious thing. We apologize," Larry Grothaus, lead product manager for Microsoft, said Tuesday.

Dana Gardner, an analyst with Aberdeen Group, said the outage will give Microsoft a black eye.

"We are at a juncture now where Microsoft and other providers are trying to convince businesses that their services are suitable for mission-critical communications," Gardner said. Reliability will be a key criterion for enterprises looking to install instant-message systems; other criteria will be security and cost.

The timing of the outage was particularly bad, coming as it did at the opening of business on the East Coast on one of the biggest business days of the year, as people returned from holiday vacations. "It's a time when people are coming back to work. When systems fail, it's a double insult. This was the worst time for something like this to happen," Gardner said. "There might have been a small technical reason for this that will be easily fixed, but the perception among users will be, 'I needed this, and they weren't there for me.'" Moreover, switching to an alternative instant message provider is easy, Gardner said. "The market will be harsh to those that don't perform well, because the cost of switching is so very low," he said.

Surprisingly, Microsoft agreed.

"We agree that a large degree of reliability is necessary," Grothaus said. "We are taking steps to see to it that we don't see outages like this again."

But Michael Sampson, an analyst with Ferris Research, said the impact of the outage on Microsoft won't be significant. He said Microsoft's instant message service had a July 2001 outage that lasted eight days.

"It's certainly not good for Microsoft, but those people that are wedded to MSN will keep using it. If they were paying for it, they would be a bit more annoyed," Sampson said.

It's uncertain just how many users were affected. Sampson said he estimates that Microsoft and America Online are the instant-messaging market leaders, with about 30 million to 35 million active users each. AOL claims it has 180 million registered users, and Microsoft says it has 75 million, but many of those accounts are duplicates -- more than one account per person -- and inactive.

Microsoft will likely become the market leader because it's including its instant-messaging technology in Windows XP; when users register XP, they are strongly urged to sign up for an MSN Messenger and Passport account, Sampson said.

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