Microsoft fumbles XP preview

The company has hit snags in delivering a preview version of Windows XP to more than 100,000 testers. It delivered the wrong passwords to some people, while a server glitch allowed others to download the preview for free.

As if Microsoft didn't have enough trouble this week with a prolonged outage of its MSN Messenger service, the company has also stumbled in its delivery of a preview version of its Windows XP operating system to more than 100,000 testers.

Microsoft unveiled the Windows XP Preview Program on July 2, issuing the first of two final testing versions--or release candidates--to those willing to pay to get it. But eight days later, many of the people who plunked down US$10 for the right to download the approximately 500MB file said they have not received the email containing a user ID and password that would allow them to do so.

Microsoft also delivered the wrong passwords to some people, while a server glitch allowed others to download the preview for free, the company said. Customers paying US$20 for the preview on CD are not expected to receive their copies until the end of the month, according to a Microsoft representative. The disc could arrive just about the same time Microsoft is expected to issue Windows XP Release Candidate 2, a newer test version of the operating system.

This latest headache comes as the Redmond, Wash-based company struggles through the seventh day of a partial MSN Messenger outage. The outage and the Windows XP preview problems underscore increasing concerns about Microsoft's ability to move from developing software to turning its products--through its .Net initiative--into rentable services for business transactions and consumer commerce.

"Personally I think Microsoft should spend a little more time on their customer relations," said Will Wilson, IT manager for ClearChannel Television in Wichita, Kan.

"On one side of the coin you have thousands of people who are unable to log on to MSN Messenger, then on the other side you have thousands of people who have signed up for the (release candidate) of Windows XP who have not received it," he said. "I think people would be more receptive toward Microsoft if they would just say what is going on and not keep everyone in the dark."

But Microsoft seemed to take such criticism in stride, seeing this more as a sign of demand for Windows XP.

"There's a lot of people extremely excited about Windows XP right now and want to get their hands on it," said Shawn Sanford, Microsoft's group product manager for Windows.

Microsoft's problems started early on in the preview-program effort. The company said that because of a glitch, about 2,000 people received the wrong passwords, which have since been corrected and resent. On top of that, a problem in one of the servers run by Conxion, the company managing the preview program, meant that for about 30 hours people could download Release Candidate 1 without paying for it.

"There was a period of time last week where people were getting unauthorized access to downloads," Sanford said. However, "those downloads did not contain activation keys...Those are sent separately to the user via email. The problem has been addressed and is not an issue any longer."

Because of Windows XP's activation feature, which requires inputting a 25-key code and connecting to Microsoft servers to "lock" the software to the computer, many people may not be able to use the rogue downloads. On the other hand, a "crack," or software code created to unlock the activation feature, is widely available through Internet newsgroups.

Overall, Microsoft's larger problem seems to be one of communication, or a lack thereof. While many people placing preview orders assumed they would be able to download the software immediately, Microsoft chose to dispatch the emails with IDs and passwords on a staggered basis to avoid overloading the servers.

"We have been sending out passwords and IDs in batches of 5,000 to manage the load against the servers and assure everyone has a good experience when they download," Sanford said. "It did take some time to send out the nearly 50,000 emails to users that requested the download, but we are working diligently to make sure everyone has the information necessary to get Windows XP."

Microsoft said it sent about 50,000 emails and recorded about 19,000 Windows XP downloads as of last Thursday.

But as of Monday, many preview-program participants complained they had not received the email with their download information.

"I ordered two download copies of Release Candidate 1," said Kevin Zolkiewicz, a Windows user from Chicago. "I was informed by Conxion that emails were being sent out in random batches beginning July 2 and that all emails would be sent by July 7. This date has now passed, and I have yet to receive download access to any of my orders."

Conxion spokeswoman Megan O'Reilly-Lewis said Conxion was "tracking each and every email address, and we're responding on an individual basis." The company said another 5,000 customers would be receiving their notification email Monday evening.

John Ochenduszko, a service technician and part-time computer consultant from Windsor, Ontario, is still waiting for his notification email. "I have already been charged and have yet to see any download authorization from Microsoft," he said. "Emails sent to their help line at wpphelp@microsoft.com have gone unanswered since Tuesday. And mail to Conxion now goes unanswered as well. It appears that Microsoft is content to let customers try and figure this out for themselves."

Scott Newberry, a Windows user from Edgewood, Ky, is waiting for email confirmation on two orders placed in late March. For him, this problem is another indictment of Microsoft's broader software-services strategy.

"Is this what we are to expect from the .Net and HailStorm initiatives--terrible communication, poor record keeping and order fulfillment, and no responses when multiple emails are sent to the prescribed email address?" he asked.

Microsoft's approach of issuing the download emails in batches may have been unnecessary. Sources close to Conxion say the company deals with exceptionally light server loads. The Windows XP downloads have put no more than a 25 percent load on Conxion's servers, leaving plenty of capacity.

Guernsey Research analyst Chris LeTocq said the real trial may not be for those waiting to download Release Candidate 1 but for those waiting to get the software on CD.

Microsoft, which hasn't sent out any CDs yet, isn't expected to deliver them until the end of the month, right about the time Release Candidate 2 is expected to be issued. A representative said the company wanted to focus on taking care of the downloads before dealing with the CDs.

"A measure of a company that cares about customer service is its ability to deliver what it says it will when it says it will and make its customers feel like they're taken care of," LeTocq said. "I don't see that here."

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