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Amnesia Bomb Halts Plus Update!

By Net4TV Voice
(May 23, 1999)

WebTV Plus users waiting for the spellcheck update will have to wait a while longer, and Classic users will have to have their boxes updated yet again. WebTV has put the update on hold while it tries to fix The Amnesia Bomb, a code that can force a WebTV box to forget its settings and require re-registration when included in an email or web page.

The Initial Denial

Net4TV Voice was alerted to the code that was being used as a bomb by our readers prior to our last issue, and we spoke with several users who had actually been bombed. When we ran the story, a number of readers alerted us that the 1-800-GOWEBTV telephone support staff was telling people that the "bomb scare" was a hoax and that the problem did not exist.

We immediately wrote to WebTV, including their PR department and Phil Goldman, and provided the details of the code, specifically how it was being included in email and web pages to force box re-registration, and also advised them that Customer Service was handing out erroneous information. On May 12, we received an email from Waggener-Edstrom, WebTV and Microsoft's PR agency, advising us that WebTV was aware of the problem that had "inconvenienced a handful of users," and that WebTV had created a "patch" that had the problem under control. We updated the story in Net4TV Voice to include this information.

We Talk to WeCare

Net4TV Voice asked WebTV PR for an update on the bomb for this issue, but received no answer and, based on their previous assertion that it was "under control," we had hoped that the problem was fixed. But towards the end of the week, a couple of our readers alerted us that the Customer Support staff was telling Plus users that the spellcheck update had been stopped. We called the support number to find out what they were saying.

The Customer Support staffer, "Matt," told us that the Plus update had been halted for the time being. When we asked why, he told us "there's a virus that causes the boxes to re-register."

A virus????!!! "Are you speaking of the code that people put in email or web pages?" we asked. "That's NOT a virus -- it's a simply a box code that is being misused in a destructive way." "Oh, yeah, that's it," he agreed. "I shouldn't have called it a virus."

(No, he shouldn't have. A virus is something entirely different, and the WebTV system is immune to the common viruses on the Net. The Customer Support staff quite often is not informed by WebTV about issues that are going on, but they need to be much more careful about making up their own explanations. It isn't a virus, no matter what a WebTV Support Staffer may tell you.)

Net4TV Voice: "So the Plus update is on hold until it is fixed?"

WeCare: "That's correct."

Net4TV Voice: "Do you have any idea when it will be fixed and the update will be resumed?"

WeCare: "No, we don't." (Some other Customer Support staffer had told one of our readers "in a month or so." The bottom line, we believe, is that they don't know -- it will be fixed when it is fixed.)

Net4TV Voice: "Will the Classic users who have already received the 1.4.1 update have to be updated again?"

WeCare: "Yes, the Classics will also have to be updated again to fix the bug."

The Peskiest "Upgrade" Of All

The 1.4.1 (Classic) and 2.2.1 (Plus) updates are turning out to be the peskiest of all of WebTV's software releases. These are not "real upgrades" (they would be designated 1.5 and 2.3, if they were), but are actually meant to be a bug fix "maintenance release" to the upgrades released last summer.

Those releases were reportedly rushed out because WebTV had promised them when the price increase was announced. The price increase went into effect in June and, at the end of August, the growing pressure from users caused the company to decide to release the Plus update. The Classic version had been released in late June and early July.

But both versions still had a lot of known bugs, and as complaints poured in from WebTV users, WebTV planned a maintenance release to fix some of the bugs (many are still not fixed, even in the update). The spellchecker, which had originally been scheduled for the "Funk" server side update in December but which itself had been held for bugs, was the only new feature included.

WebTV had apparently decided to use the 1.4.1 and 2.2.1 releases to rid themselves of some the user activities that they considered to be "problems," too. They took the opportunity to re-write the method of calling chat functions, causing thousands of WebTV users' homemade chat interfaces to be disabled. Although Net4TV Voice's chat editor, Diane Dumas, was able to figure out a workaround within a few hours and post it in Net4TV Voice, every WebTV user with a custom IRC interface would have been forced to re-write it to use the new method. The new method also inserted TalkCity banners in users' custom chats, which the old method had not done.

Tens of thousands of telephone calls, emails, and newsgroup postings poured into WebTV complaining about the disabled chats. For the first couple of days, WebTV's Customer Support stated that this was a planned action, but quickly changed to "it's a bug and we're aware of it" when the call volume got so heavy that many users got nothing but a busy signal on WebTV's 800 number. Within four days, WebTV stopped the update rollout, and restored the original methods of calling chat functions. The update was then resumed for the Classic, and boxes that had already received it were updated again.

[Ed note: Net4TV Voice was aware that WebTV was going to make the method change, and ran a chat poll in which over 8,000 users expressed how important chat and the custom interfaces were to their WebTV experience. We couldn't say it directly at the time, but we were trying to help send a message to WebTV that there would be a very unhappy reaction if they were disable the users' IRCs. Unfortunately, they did not save themselves work and embarrassment by listening.]

The "Amnesia Bomb" uses a code that is apparently designed for retailers' and manufacturers' service departments. One of the problems that many retailers have reported to Net4TV Voice is that, when a WebTV box is returned, it often has already been registered and therefore cannot just be returned to stock. The code forces the box to re-register, effectively clearing any previous user's information. Unfortunately, it appears that someone with access to the code leaked the information to a user whose idea of fun was to interfere with other users' service. Net4TV Voice has not been able to find out what happened to that user (TOS'ed, we hope), but the secret was out.

And, despite the characterization that "only a handful of subscribers have been inconvenienced," the situation is serious enough for WebTV to halt the update yet again in order to close this hole. All WebTV boxes, Plus and Classic, will go through the update yet again after the problem is fixed.

Our Editorial Opinion

Net4TV Voice supports WebTV's decision to withhold the update to fix these problems. It's a pain for the users, true, but not so much as losing your account because of an uncorrected problem.

But we do encourage WebTV to learn from these experiences and make some additional changes to help keep some of these problems from happening again, and to deal with them more gracefully when they do:
  1. Listen to what your beta testers and your users tell you before you release the updates. If you were listening, you would not have made the IRC changes that you had to reverse.

  2. Inform the Customer Service people immediately when there is ANY problem, and tell them how to explain it properly. When they don't know, or when they stonewall and tell users that something isn't happening when the users know differently, they just lose all their credibility.

  3. Don't just TOS your "hackers"... find the most mature of them (there are some) and convert them to be special testers to find the ability to do bombs and other mischief so that you can fix it before you roll the software out. There will always be people coming onto WebTV who have the ability and the inclination to exploit the system for mischief. Get some hackers to help you find them before your users do.

Perhaps the third time will be the charm -- we hope so.

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