Who can afford to turn away paying customers in this economy?
Apparently Microsoft can, at least according to the protagonist of today's head-scratcher of a tale.
Two years ago, our fellow was pleased to pay Microsoft Hotmail an introductory rate of US$12.95 for a year's worth of extra storage and relaxed limits on attachment sizes. That's an awfully sweet deal on what is otherwise a free e-mail account.
Turns out he didn't need the extra space, though, so our man - Tim is his name - let the paid portion of his account lapse. (Tim's a former vice president at a network vendor and doesn't want to trash Microsoft using his full name while he's job-hunting.) That decision left active only the freebie Hotmail address, which he has circulated to hundreds of friends and business contacts over the years.
Tim subsequently lost his job - and his corporate e-mail account, of course - so the trusty Hotmail address became his lifeline to the online world . . . and the premium service once again seemed appealing.
Even though the price is now $19.95, Tim is more than willing to pay. And why not? It's still a steal.
Trouble is, Microsoft doesn't want his money - at least not on terms Tim can accept - and finding out exactly why has proven difficult.
"I reached Microsoft support fairly easily, but I was told that because I had previously subscribed to the $12.95-per-annum service I was no longer eligible to purchase additional storage for this account - ever," Tim tells me. "Skeptically, I requested to speak to a manager, who promptly took my call. Amazingly, she confirmed the same story - Microsoft's policy is that any account that took advantage of the initial pilot price of $12.95 is forever ineligible to purchase added storage for any price. Presumably, the success of the service at $12.95 was sufficiently high that Microsoft thought that the market would bear $19.95 - this would suggest that I'm not alone in enjoying this problem."
What it doesn't suggest is an explanation for Microsoft's unwillingness to both restart Tim's premium service and resume cashing his checks.
Oh, he was told that he could get extra storage if he was willing to open a new Hotmail account, but that option would mean a new address and all of its attendant hassles. As Tim notes, "This is the reason that [US] Congress just mandated wireless service providers to invest billions of dollars in infrastructure to support wireless number portability."
His efforts to get a fuller explanation proved futile, as Hotmail's complaint-escalation process apparently ends far short of anyone who actually could tell him why he was out of luck. So I tried.
"We're not aware of any technical issues that currently exist with the sign-up procedure that would affect a customer trying to reestablish their extra storage service," a Microsoft spokesman said.
Tim and the Hotmail support people beg to differ.
"So, here I sit - Microsoft refuses to sell me additional storage for this account, they can't tell me why it is impossible . . . and they cannot/will not contact me directly," Tim says. "This sure doesn't sound like a company that is trying to earn my business; it seems much more like the behavior of AT&T before divestiture."
Of course, when you're the world's richest software company . . . .