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Posted at 9:45 AM ET, 01/ 4/2011

The mystery of the missing Hotmail messages (updated)

By Rob Pegoraro

Hotmail users who made a New Year's Resolution to clean up their inboxes got some unexpected help in that project over the weekend: A glitch in Microsoft's free Web mail service mysteriously wiped out the folders of thousands of users from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2.


As one of the first user reports on the company's Windows Live Solution Center forum put it, the experience was like having one's account reset back to day one: "I refreshed my browser and logged back in, only to see a 'Welcome to Hotmail' email and all of my previous emails missing."

One affected user, Mike Vicic, provided a more detailed description in an e-mail sent on the evening of Dec. 31. The Pasadena, Calif., engineer noted that the outage left users' contacts lists untouched, and he criticized Microsoft's slow response to the first complaints:

Techs were treating the posts on a case-by-case basis, and were trying to recover people's accounts one at a time with varying degrees of success.... [They] did not see the bigger, widespread issue until approximately 7 hours later when one tech replied: "We have already filed a report about this and we are currently investigating this issue. As I have checked the accounts, they are registered as new accounts."

A more helpful reply came in a separate thread on that forum on Jan. 2. A Hotmail developer reported that "we have identified the source of the issue, have restored email access to those who were effected." A second post Monday morning encouraged users who still couldn't get to their e-mail to file a report.

Vicic wrote that his inbox and other folders returned early Sunday morning, in the same state as before the abrupt sweep.

(Note that if you'd taken advantage of Hotmail's free mail downloading option -- also available at no charge on Gmail and AOL's Web mail service, but a $20/year upgrade at Yahoo's -- you would have still been able to read saved messages on your own computer.)

Microsoft posted a more public acknowledgment of the issue Monday afternoon on its Windows Team Blog. Wrote Chris Jones, a vice president for Windows Live services:

Beginning on December 30th we had an issue with Windows Live Hotmail that impacted 17,355 accounts. Customers impacted temporarily lost the contents of their mailbox through the course of mailbox load balancing between servers. We identified the root cause and restored mail to the impacted accounts as of yesterday evening, January 2nd. As with all incidents like this, we will fully investigate the cause and will take steps to prevent this from happening again. We're very sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused to you, our customers and partners.

That explanation makes it clear that only a small minority of Hotmail's 280 million active users suffered this outage. It does, however, leave room for a fair amount of speculation about just what pushed things off the rails. Were you among the Hotmail users hit with a blank inbox this weekend? If so, care to suggest your own theory in a comment?

Update, 1/7/11: You can stop theorizing. Microsoft posted a much more detailed explanation yesterday. In this case, Hotmail's standard diagnostic routine of creating test accounts to monitor the service's working went awry:

we had an error in a script that inadvertently removed the directory records of a small number of real user accounts along with a set of test accounts. Please note that the email messages and folders of impacted users were not deleted; only their inbox location in the directory servers was removed.

Fortunately, Microsoft's Mike Schackwitz writes, things should be fine now--"we had 100% recovery of existing email and folders in the affected accounts"--with one exception:

The only unfortunate exception to this statement is that, if you were affected by this incident and you didn't sign in to your account between the time of the incident and the time your account was restored, then any messages sent to your account during that time would have bounced.

Is your inbox still missing messages, or are things fully back to normal in your Hotmail account? We're still accepting comments on this, so let me know.

By Rob Pegoraro  | January 4, 2011; 9:45 AM ET
Categories:  E-mail  
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I don't have a hotmail account, but wife and a friend does and I have had trouble receiving messages from them for a couple months now. In fact, my wife sent me a few emails yesterday and I still have only received one of them...this morning. They both send emails from blackberry and droid...maybe that's the issue?

Posted by: qwerty1232 | January 4, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

"mailbox load balancing between servers"
The load balancer glitched while copying files from one server to the other. These things happen.

Posted by: wiredog | January 4, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

I download my Hotmail messages using Outlook so I wasn't affected by this particular problem. However, within the last few months, Microsoft has changed their junk email settings to prevent users from doing their own junk-mail filtering, so many of my important emails (including many communications from eBay) end up in Hotmail's junk email folder, where they will be deleted after 10 days or so.

There does not appear to be any way to completely disable Hotmail's standard junk-filter. Microsoft now offers only "Exclusive" email filtering (where everything not from your contacts is junk) or "Standard," where Microsoft makes the decision (usually incorrectly) about what is junk. There does not appear to be any way to tell Hotmail that I want to do my own junk-mail filtering, and I'm guessing that the junk mail folder is where a lot of folks' missing emails are going.

The moral of this story is that if you are downloading your email through the POP3 interface, you still need to go to the Hotmail web interface at least once a week, select the emails in your junk folder, and mark them as "not junk." Otherwise, some of your legitimate emails will disappear into a black hole, never to be seen again...

Posted by: jerkhoff | January 4, 2011 11:42 AM | Report abuse

Another moral of the story: be very careful about trusting people who use the noun "impact" as a verb, and who confuse "affected" and "effected"...

Posted by: mjohnston1 | January 4, 2011 12:20 PM | Report abuse

mjohston1, perhaps you'd appreciate the comment of one of my UK friends who said, "The problem with you Yanks is that you verb all those nouns."

Posted by: Arlington4 | January 4, 2011 2:28 PM | Report abuse

Grammar mavens in the house!

I lost all my e-mails during those 4 days. I had not backed up so I understand I deserve no sympathy. Still, Microsoft's handling of the situation truly sucked. The whole thing reminded me of when your train stops on the tracks and they leave you to stew in agitated ignorance of the cause or possible length of delay. How hard would it have been to send a "we're working on the problem" e-mail at the very least? An apology in my inbox would be good customer service too. I don't want to have to log onto their site to hear them say "we're sorry."

Nevertheless, all's well that ends well.

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Posted by: strade65 | January 4, 2011 8:36 PM | Report abuse

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