By T.R. REID and BRIT HUME

We started up Internet Explorer the other day and connected to the Internet, as we've done 10,000 times before. Once connected, we clicked on the "Mail" command. That's when things went terribly wrong.

Normally, clicking on Mail brings up a program called "Internet Mail," with which we can send, receive, save and organize e-mail messages. But this time, clicking that command brought up a completely different program called "Microsoft Exchange." This happens to be one of Microsoft's greatest flops, a notoriously lame effort to copy Lotus Notes. We've never used Exchange, and didn't even know it was loaded on our computer.

Exchange was a disaster. It couldn't send or receive messages. It couldn't find any of the hundreds of earlier e-mails we have stored on our computer. It couldn't even find our e-mail address book. We desperately needed to get back to Internet Mail.

But no matter how many times we rebooted the computer and reconnected to the Internet, we couldn't escape. Clicking on the Mail command brought up that useless Exchange program every time. We had no access to e-mail.

It was obvious that something or somebody had changed a crucial setting on our PC. Initially, we responded the way any contemporary parent would: We blamed the kids. But many tearful denials convinced us that our children hadn't changed anything.

Thinking things over, we recalled that we had just installed a new program called "Encarta Virtual Globe," an electronic atlas program from Microsoft. But this program hadn't said anything about changing settings on our PC when it was installed. So that couldn't be the culprit.

For the next couple of days, we checked and rechecked every possible setting on our PC. We read reference books and asked tekkie friends for help. No solution.

Finally, we took another look at the Microsoft atlas program. Some tiny print on the side of the box said that installation of Virtual Globe would "upgrade" our Internet browser. The installation program itself had said nothing about this, and there was no "Readme" file, either the place where a software maker might normally explain such things.

But with that hint, we found that our Internet Explorer program had in fact been "upgraded" to something called "version 3.02." But could that change block access to e-mail?

For several more hours, we perused the hard disk. At long last, we found something that hadn't been there before. It was a long text file that Microsoft had supplied with Virtual Globe and installed in a sub-sub-sub-directory. It wasn't called "Problems," or "Bugs," or even "Readme." It had the bland title "Internet."

Near the bottom of this nine-page document, under the heading "Known Issues," we found some technical gobbledygook that said this new version 3.02 of Internet Explorer always loads the e-mail program "erroneously." In other words, people using this version of Microsoft's browser can't connect to e-mail and Microsoft knew it. The document offered complex instructions for a "work-around." They didn't work, either, but by experimenting, we finally got connected again.

In summary, Microsoft sent out a program that changed crucial settings on our PC with no warning. The change installed a program that was defective. Microsoft knew about the defect, but concealed it from customers, burying the information in a nine-page text file with a misleading title.

There are several lessons here. First: Be very leery of Encarta Virtual Globe. Alternatives are available, such as the Rand McNally New Millennium World Atlas. It is better and faster than the Microsoft version and won't screw up your e-mail program.

Further, if you have to buy Microsoft software, be sure to get it from a dealer who will promise in advance to clean up any ruinous changes that Microsoft's installation program might make on your PC.

As for Microsoft: Those engineers who knowingly sent out defective software that cuts off customers' e-mail access should be stripped of their stock options, not to mention their jobs.

T.R. Reid is Rocky Mountain bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@ix.netcom.com, or Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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