MICROSOFT'S E-MAIL Is it possible to be just too popular for your own good? After making Bill Gates the richest man in America and flooding the world with Windows and spawning a new corporate culture, Microsoft has hit an unexpected barrier, caused by its own success.

On the night of Wednesday to Thursday, the company was forced to stop e-mail transmissions without warning because of the sheer volume of messages.

The problem had started building up earlier in the week, but by early Thursday the number of messages shooting across its network was so great a sudden shutdown had to be ordered.

The glitch came after the Microsoft Network - the world's third-largest Internet provider after America Online and Compuserve - had grown by 40 per cent in six months to reach 2.5 million subscribers by late March.

Microsoft is not alone in its difficulty. Online services run by US telecommunications companies AT & T and MCI have had similar problems, but America Online was, until last week, the worst hit.

The company built its numbers up to eight million subscribers by switching from its traditional per-minute pricing to offering customers unlimited access for US$19.95 (HK$154.40) a month. People rushed to sign up. Once they had paid their monthly fee, they naturally wanted to get the biggest bang for the buck. So they doubled the time they were spending on-line.

This brought a nightmare of clogged telephone lines, and the prospect of class-action lawsuits against the firm.

It also made America Online into what The Economist described as a household name for its notorious service problems. Its consumer side, America Online Networks, has a new boss, one-time disc jockey Robert Pittman whose previous credits include MTV, the Movie Channel and the relaunch of the Nickelodeon Channel.

A 20-hour shutdown by AOL last year had been the most spectacular sign of the penalty popularity could bring. Then came Microsoft: after all, Mr Gates' giant baby has to do everything bigger than anybody else.

The remedy was in keeping with the growth of the network - to install enough computers simply to double the network's capacity.

It was not as if the problem had not been foreseen; Microsoft had been planning to upgrade the e-mail system in about three weeks.

Behind the breakdown lies a broader question. Should Internet services be subjected to the same standard of reliability as those required from other utilities? Should they be as trustworthy as the telephone service, for example? Or are they freewheeling services from which customers should be happy with what they get? More immediately, they face a real problem in forecasting volumes of traffic, not only as more and more subscribers use them but also as users sign on for services which automatically deliver information from World Wide Web pages to their e-mail addresses.

Not that these problems are going to do anything to dampen the runaway enthusiasm behind the Internet. Indeed, as The Economist reports this weekend, deep in the Net, the engineers who keep the network running have been claiming from time to time that all is well.

They have been drowned out by warnings of impending doom. Bob Metcalfe, who invented modern networking technology and is now a respected Internet columnist in InfoWorld, said in late 1995 that he would eat his words if the Internet did not 'go spectacularly supernova and, in 1996, catastrophically collapse'. He spent much of the next year crowing about every hiccup and brown-out. But as catastrophe failed to ensure, the wireheads demanded revenge. Last week, they got it, as Mr Metcalfe was heckled at a conference in California until he wheeled out his column, adorning a cake, and after some grumbling about his sensitive stomach, consumed it.

'OK, I was wrong,' he said.

So were many other people. Their mistake: to underestimate the power of the Internet's distributed technology to evolve with demand.

The evidence suggests the Internet is not only getting faster in absolute terms, as one can expect given the usual march of technology, but growing even faster than demand. No single statistic tells the whole story.

Research suggests the typical response time over the Internet has been improving by about 15 per cent a year, despite at least an annual trebling of traffic. And 'instability' - a measure of how often the Internet's main switches have to redirect traffic around problems - has dropped by nearly two-thirds in the past six months at one of the main network junctures in New York.

As the Internet grows, the consequences of each breakdown are bound to be greater.

But as Scott Bradner, a Harvard University network specialist, points out, an average of 30,000 Americans are without a telephone service for five hours every day - and nobody predicts the death of the telephone.