Wednesday, December 30, 2009

AOL Greets 60-Hour+ CompuServe Classic POP3 and Webmail Outage with Silence

Update 12/30/2009 12:40 PM PST: Changed “48-Hour” to “60-Hour+.” The @aolmail folks finally acknowledged that they were having problems with e-mail in this tweet of Wednesday morning:

It’s about time.

Update 12/29/2009 8:35 AM PST: Received the following message from Marcel Brewer, the AOL Mail technical representative for the CompuServe Classic service who is mentioned in posts to the CompuServe Help Community forum:

Please accept my apologies. I have have been out of the office and just been made aware of the issue. I am working with the entire team to ensure that this will not happen again. This is clearly not the way we want to offer service to our users.

The issue should have been solved as of yesterday evening. …

There remain no replies on Twitter to tweets about the problem. The last @aolmail tweet still is 12/18/2009. I believe a commercial presence on Twitter obliges the organization to respond to technical service requests in a timely fashion.

One reader of this post, who wishes to remain anonymous, mentioned that his CompuServe Classic mail service was down for five days.

For those of you too young to remember CompuServe in its heyday, Ken Gagne and Matt Lake wrote a CompuServe, Prodigy et al.: What Web 2.0 can learn from Online 1.0 article for ComputerWorld on 7/15/2009, shortly after CompuServe ceased being an ISP. The article includes a brief history of CompuServe, as well as other early online services.

Update 12/28/2009 4:00 PM PST: POP3 and Webmail service finally was restored this afternoon. I can’t find any explanation from @aolmail on Twitter (their last tweet is still 12/18/2009 at 9:24 AM). Nor is there a post about the problem to the AOL Mail blog (last post was 12/17/2009). Apparently, AOL would like CompuServe Classic users to forget the problem occurred.

Update 12/28/2009 11:20AM PST: I’ll update this post when I receive a response from the Aol Mail folks.

I’ve had a CompuServe mail account for more than 20 years. At the time I began using an online service, CompuServe was the only appropriate choice for serious PC users and software developers.

Early beta testers of Microsoft products interacted in CompuServe forums where Microsoft paid the hourly charge. (In those days, CompuServe charged by the hour for dial-up connections.) I can remember only an occasional brief problem or two with CompuServe until June 2009, when CompuServe ceased their ISP operations and moved CompuServe Classic mail users to POP3/SMTP and Webmail access provided by America Online (Aol Mail). 

My email address (roger_jennings[at] is in the Introduction to more than 1.25 million English copies of my 30+ books; countless articles in magazines such as Visual Basic Programmers Journal, Visual Studio Magazine, and Redmond Developer News; and 712 Blog posts. Thousands of my contacts only know my CompuServe address, so it’s not practical to substitute aliases for other mailboxes. AOL doesn’t appear to offer a relay service to other email aliases.

Early Saturday morning, 12/26/2009, Outlook began requesting updated credentials for my CompuServe POP3 account and reporting the following error:

To test whether my Outlook Account details were at fault, I logged into AOL’s Classic CompuServe Webmail and was greeted by the following message:

I tested AOL’s SMPT service with Outlook and found I could send mail to my other aliases without difficulty. SMPT transmission requires logging on with the same credentials as the POP3 server.

However, mail sent to my CompuServe alias returns an “Undelivered Mail Returned to Sender” message with the following details (emphasis added and @ replaced by [at]):

Reporting-MTA: dns;
X-Internet-Inbound-Queue-ID: D7B333800025E
X-Internet-Inbound-Sender: rfc822; rogerj[at]
Arrival-Date: Sun, 27 Dec 2009 12:03:52 -0500 (EST)

Final-Recipient: rfc822; roger_jennings[at]
Original-Recipient: rfc822;roger_jennings[at]
Action: failed
Status: 4.2.1
Remote-MTA: dns;
Diagnostic-Code: smtp; 450 4.2.1 Mailbox disabled, not accepting messages

I then began posting messages to @aolmail on Twitter and used another alias to send a message to an AOL representative who had assisted me with a previous problem on 12/17/2009. As of 9:30 AM PST on 12/28/2009 I had received no reply from any AOL representative, either directly or in response to my tweets. (Click here to see my tweets to @aolmail.)

To determine whether the problem was specific to my mailbox, I began searching AOL forums for assistance requests with Classic CompuServe POP3 or Webmail. Classic CompuServe forums appear to have disappeared after the June 2009 ISP shutdown. However, I did find a lengthy thread in the CompuServe Help Community forum about problems with Classic CompuServe mail, Can’t access mailbox, beginning on 12/26/2009. The CompuServe Help Community forum is for CompuServe 2000 users only, so little help was forthcoming.

The AOL Mail Team posted on 12/10/2009 A Renewed Focus on YOU, a self-congratulatory paean about AOL that began with:

A new day dawns here at AOL. As you may or may not know, today AOL again became an independent company. We couldn't be more excited as this provides us, the Mail team, an opportunity to get back to our roots.

It is fair to say that some of the changes made to AOL Mail in the past didn't always have our users' best interests top of mind. No more. That stopped yesterday.

Today we take a stand. A passion for providing the best email product possible is our promise to you.

But no post had appeared as of 10:00 AM PST about the CompuServe Webmail/POP3 outage. It didn’t take AOL very long to renege on their “promise.”

Michael Arrington wrote an AOL’s Deteriorating Fundamentals Not A Hit With Analysts essay for TechCrunch on 12/23/2009, which includes the following commentary:

Aol is telling a good story, but Citi analyst Mark Mahaney isn’t buying it. AOL is probably the toughest Internet turnaround story, he says in a report today, citing “28% Y/Y decline in its Subscriber base and 38% Y/Y decline in its EBITDA.” He recommends people buy Yahoo, which “will almost surely revert to growth before AOL.”

Mahaney also notes that Aol was the only top 5 web property in the U.S. to have year over year declines in visitors. …

Barclays analyst Douglas Anmuth was similarly bearish on AOL a couple of weeks ago.

It seems to me that lack of attention to the infrastructure failure and customer service reported here is an egregious example of why AOL has encountered a “28% Y/Y decline in its Subscriber base.”

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