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Microsoft: Silence of the Flacks

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The latest Microsoft debacle has left industry analysts and members of the media believing that if a nuclear bomb went off in Microsoft’s basement, the company would respond with a statement two days later confirming that a small puff of smoke had been spotted.

“Microsoft, like many governments, goes into stealth mode when the chips – or the servers – are down,” said Kerry Newman, a reporter for the London Financial Times. “Calls and e-mails to their press relations people are typically greeted with silence or tepid assurances that the company is ‘working on it.'”

But Microsoft has a much larger impact on many people’s everyday lives than the government does. And some are saying that a company with this much influence needs to be more forthcoming with news.

Microsoft announced late on Thursday that the company had been hit earlier in the day by “hacker attacks” and that some of its routers, the equipment that directs Web surfers to a site, were taken offline due to a denial-of-service attack.

The company said that these denial-of-service attacks were not the cause of the outage that knocked many of its Web properties, including its main corporate site and its MSN.com portal, offline from Tuesday evening to Wednesday evening.

Microsoft had said those earlier outages were due to a sole technician who made a “mistaken configuration change” to the computers that guide Web surfers to the company’s sites.

Microsoft had fixed that problem by Wednesday evening but by Thursday morning many sites were inaccessible again, leaving the media and users in the dark over what might have brought Microsoft down again.

Many users of Microsoft’s software and services were left out in the cold for a significant part of the week. People who booked plane or hotel reservations with Expedia couldn’t access their travel information. Hotmail users couldn’t get their e-mail. Programmers were unable to get to Microsoft’s technical information.

And a blank page greeted anyone who went to MSNBC’s news site to see what was happening.

“I work for a security company, and my job involves looking for exploits in software and systems,” said one technician, who declined to be identified.

“Microsoft is infamous in this industry for taking two or three weeks to respond fully to bug attacks. They don’t always lag on response time, but they do it often enough that it’s troubling. They just stonewall you, almost as a reflex reaction.”

The company’s silence regarding the series of failures that brought down its websites this week also left support people in other organizations scrambling for answers.

Denny Callahan is in charge of a Fortune 500 company network that serves many remote and mobile workers. On Wednesday, Callahan got at least three dozen calls from users, all claiming that the “Internet was down.”

“MSN was their default home page and they use Hotmail for e-mail because they can access it from anywhere,” Callahan said. “OK, fine, their reaction was like flipping a light switch, not getting any light, and assuming the entire state’s power grid is down. But they needed their e-mail, so I called Microsoft to find out what was up, bounced around in voice mail for a while, and gave up.”

Microsoft’s slow response to the crack attack on its servers last October left critics blasting the company’s security, and bug trackers were also dismayed at the lax response times shown when they reported major problems in the company’s Frontpage Server Extension application and Internet Information Server.

Microsoft’s practice of staying silent until – and if – it’s ready to speak angered many who felt that they’d been left to pick up the pieces this week after the software giant took a tumble.

ISPs, company support desk personnel, and almost anyone who seemed they might know what was going on were besieged with phone calls and e-mails.

Some discovered that they could access Microsoft’s sites by using DNS addressing, typing in strings of numbers such as 207.46.230.218 instead of the standard “www.microsoft.com” address. Soon, Microsoft’s IP (Internet protocol) addresses were being traded online as if they were rare collectibles.

Hotmail users, which number about 84 million, were hit especially hard. Some managed to access their e-mail via the IP addresses, but many could not and were left searching for answers to when service would resume, and whether they would lose any mail that was being sent to them in the meantime.

When asked, Microsoft spokespeople either “declined to speculate” or, in the case of Microsoft’s Adam Sohn, said that it was difficult to say whether Hotmail’s problems were directly related to the server outage, or to “the normal difficulties that sometimes occur with Hotmail.”

Frustrated Hotmail users sent e-mails to a variety of news organizations, pleading -– and in some cases demanding -– to know when the service would resume.

“It’s a free service, so how can you expect it to be perfect all the time,” said Fred Futher, in an e-mail sent from his AOL account. “No offense intended to Microsoft, but you get what you pay for. And actually, with Hotmail, which has some really sophisticated and neat features, you’re getting a real bargain.

“And as far as informing their users, well, sure, I’d like to think they are talking to you guys in the media. On the other hand, most users, including myself, are pretty much summed up by a quote from George Carlin: ‘Not only do I not know what’s going on, I wouldn’t know what to do about it if I did.’

“What would we have done if we knew Microsoft was under attack, or that it was a server problem, or whatever? Does it make a difference to anyone but the techies? I’d just as soon Microsoft focus on fixing its problems than spend time chatting with the press.”

Others felt that Microsoft should attempt to get critical information out as quickly as possible.

“I’ve noticed an alarming amount of ‘Microsoft was unavailable for comment’ in news pieces lately,” said John Markham, a retired professor of journalism at Massey College.

“This is a typical old-economy response to queries. They stonewall you, wait for the story to appear, and then decide how much damage has been done and respond to that, rather than giving you something that you might not have found out on your own. It’s a bad and distrustful practice.”

Microsoft officials did not answer repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.

The costs to Microsoft are not insignificant, either. The company’s reputation has taken a hit, right at the time that it’s trying to bolster interest in its new Net-based services.

Techies digging for information on what could possibly have brought Microsoft’s websites down discovered the company had made a major error in the basic plumbing of its website: Microsoft’s DNS server architecture evidently was set up badly.

“DNS is the holy grail for Internet-based businesses,” said Frank DeCappa, a network analyst. “And I was appalled to find out that the DNS records for MICROSOFT.COM show that the primary and secondary name servers are, in fact, one and the same. This is contrary to all established standards for a robust network.

“People weren’t told what was happening, so they went on a fishing expedition. And they caught a lot more than they would have if Microsoft had been more forthcoming with the media,” Markham said.

Some Microsoft properties also lost significant advertising revenue as a result of the outage, along with lost sales revenues from sites, such as Expedia and CarPoint, which rely on product sales.

Jupiter Media Metrix research shows that Microsoft’s websites got 54 million unique visitors in December, behind AOL with 61 million and Yahoo with 55 million.

“A couple of days of non-presence on the Web could hurt them,” advertising analyst David Cutler said. “But they are an established brand and will bounce back quickly.”

Microsoft’s excellent track record may help them with that bounce; according to Keynote Metrix, Microsoft’s websites have long been among the most robust on the Internet, providing users with successful connections 98 or 99 percent of the time.

“But in a world where no news is now bad news, all companies, not just Microsoft, have to learn to communicate better,” Markham said.

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