Back in 1999, Microsoft experienced one of the most embarrassing incidents of its storied history. The company’s 50 million or so Hotmail users had their email accounts compromised after a hack allowed anyone to gain access by using the password, “eh”. At the time, it was considered one of the most significant security breaches in the, then nascent, history of the world wide web. As it transpired, it was little more than a stunt, carried out – reportedly by a group called Hackers Unite – in an attempt to demonstrate Microsoft’s lax security rather than a more nefarious hack by cybercriminals.
Nevertheless, it was embarrassing for Microsoft at the time, particularly as there wasn’t a coherent response from Microsoft as to what went wrong, how long the problem existed and who was to blame. As one of the hackers said, “We did not do this to destroy, we want to show the world how bad the Microsoft security is, and that company nearly have [sic] monopoly on (all) the computer software.”.
Things have changed 22 years later, of course. Hotmail is now incorporated into Outlook, and the 50 million users have become more than 400 million. While it remains a big player, Microsoft does not have a monopoly on software. But issues can still plague Outlook that can become embarrassing, and the response from Microsoft can still be found wanting.
Users were frustrated with Outlook’s latest bug
The recent Outlook bug that made the headlines is an interesting case in point. Users around the world were faced with an email bug that was first discovered in February of this year, and which has only now (late April) seen a permanent fix. Look for any articles on the story, and you will see words like “frustrating”, “confusing”, and “annoying” in the headline. The bug stopped many people from sending emails, and it represented bad press for Outlook’s parent, coming around the same time of the Microsoft Exchange Server hack.
Words like “frustrating” are apt in this case: not just because all software bugs are annoying, but because there wasn’t a clear response from Microsoft over what went wrong and how to fix it. With this particular bug, Outlook users were faced with a pop-up message saying the email couldn’t be sent – and no other details. It was that lack of detail that sent millions of users into panic.
As the Express newspaper in the UK reported, the timing was bad, given that millions of us are working and studying from home during the pandemic, and that Outlook is so ubiquitous as an email tool for business and school.
As the time went on without a clear solution, one wonders whether some users would have explored an Outlook alternative like Spike email. Spike isn’t the first company to offer a replacement to Outlook, but it perhaps has the best chance of dislodging the near-monopoly enjoyed by Microsoft.
Response can be lacking from a company with near-monopoly
The charge laid at Outlook’s feet is not that it suffered a bug and that people should change email clients. There are always bugs, and the one in question here is not the only one to have afflicted Outlook in recent months. But it is the clunky response, and the knowledge that it will happen again that might make some businesses and individuals question their relationship with Outlook. Alternatives like Spike are a little more, let’s call it, bespoke and dynamic than the cumbersome Outlook, and that can make the identification and fixing of any problems a little easier.
Our intent here is not to say that Outlook is terrible – you can get plenty of “Outlook sucks” threads on Reddit and Quora if you want to deep dive into its issues. It isn’t terrible, and it has its merits, but there is perhaps a sense of complacency due to its market position. It has become the default email client because of the ubiquitousness of Windows.
To be fair, Microsoft does try to make it better from time to time, but this often causes more consternation for its users. Perhaps it is time for an alternative.