WebTV blacks out for 350,000

A server crash turned hundreds of thousands of WebTV boxes into plugged-in paperweights for two hours Thursday night, leaving analysts and subscribers to wonder whether WebTV is starting to hit technological barriers.

All 350,000-plus subscribers were blocked from accessing the service when the registration server -- the computer that subscribers access to log on to the service -- went down on WebTV Networks' interactive TV service between approximately 7:30 PM and 9:30 PM PT Thursday.

The failure did not affect TV viewing except in a very few cases, said a WebTV spokesperson.

A spike in WebTV usage caused the problem, said a spokesperson. The company was working to fix the problem, which could recur if the service again experiences a high volume of requests from its users.

WebTV, owned by Microsoft, is promoted on the Windows 98 software, released Thursday.

For up to $24.95 per month, WebTV subscribers receive an electronic TV programming guide, e-mail, Internet access, chat and other services accessed through their television set.

For the pioneering service, such a serious service glitch could turn off subscribers, who are used to trouble-free TV viewing. But analysts were mixed in their opinions.

"How this affects them depends on how soon they fix the problem," said Jae Kim, industry analyst at new media watcher Paul Kagan Associates. "There are very few platforms that have performed as consistently as, say, the telephone. Frankly, I am surprised that it hasn't happened before."

Internet service provider America Online had significant problems, Kim noted, but still emerged as the leading online service with 12 million subscribers. "This is just growing pains," he said.

But Greg Blatnik, a senior analyst at Zona Research, said the crash was a sign that the company may not be able to keep up with increasing service demands. "They're not experiencing an amazing amount of growth," he said, adding that the service should be keeping up.