Tag Archives | Gmail

Google’s Gmail-a Culpa: Good, But…

In my first post on today’s Gmail outage, I noted that Google’s official Gmail blog was mum on what was going on. I’m pleased to report that after Google had found and fixed the glitch, it used the Gmail blog to report that fact and apologize for the inconvenience. Google didn’t explain what happened, but as my look back at a dozen years of Internet outages shows, the explanations behind unplanned downtime are usually boring, technical, and cryptic–not particularly exciting reading unless you’re a system administrator yourself.

But the one thing about Gmail product manager Todd Jackson’s post that kinda bothers me is this aside towards the end:

“We don’t usually post about problems like this on our blog, but we wanted to make an exception in this case since so many people were impacted.”

Jackson goes on to suggest that people who encounter Gmail problems check out Gmail’s online help and user group for the fastest updates; fair enough. But I hope that Google isn’t too cautious about using its many official blogs to discuss problems with its services and what it’s doing about them. A corporate blog that alerts users to cool new features can be useful; one that’s a comprehensive guide to the services it covers–warts and all–can be invaluable.

Thinking back to AOL’s famous string of humiliating outages in the mid-1990s, one of the things that got the company through them was CEO Steve Case’s letters to AOL users. They were proto-blog posts, prominently displayed on the AOL home page and pretty open about the service’s hiccups, of which there were many.

Today, even Apple is using blogs to deal with MobileMe’s ongoing issues–in a somewhat halting and stilted fashion, but at least it’s trying.

So please, Google (and every other Internet company I deal with): Err on the side of addressing the challenges you and your customers face on your blogs. Apologies are appreciated, but a generally up-front approach to explaining what happened, what you’re doing about it, and whether it might happen again is much more important than “I’m sorry.”


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A Brief History of Internet Outages

Someday we’ll all tell our grandkids about what we were doing during the great Gmail outage of August 11th, 2008. Well, okay, probably not–Google’s e-mail service was down for only a couple of hours, which is relatively brief as Internet outages go. But when one of the world’s most popular mail systems goes missing even briefly, zillions of people are inconvenienced and want to share their frustration. In a weird way, it’s a huge compliment: If Gmail wasn’t essential, nobody would care if it went away.

For a dozen years or so now, the Internet has been a mainstream communications medium, and its history has been pockmarked with examples of big-time services choking for extended periods–often a lot longer than today’s Gmail blip. The most famous examples of unplanned downtime have a lot in common: They usually last longer than anyone expected and get blamed on cryptic technical glitches. Almost always, angry consumers announce they’re done with the service in question; almost always, the service eventually recovers.

Oh, and one more thing: The biggest and most embarrassing failures all seem to happen during the summer months. Maybe technology, like human beings, just doesn’t work quite as hard when the weather’s hot and there are distractions like baseball games, picnics, and vacations to contemplate.

Now that Gmail’s back, it’s worth recapping a few other outages that made headlines when they happened–and since the ones that follow are in alphabetical order, they begin with maybe the most famous one of all (hint: it involved a company whose initials are A.O.L.)…

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Gmail: Maybe the “G” Stands for “Gone”?

Last week, I blogged about a Gmail outage and noted with relief that it hadn’t affected me. Gmail is down again now, and I’m not feeling so lucky: Both my personal and work accounts are displaying the same message at the moment:

It would appear that I have lots of company–Twitter is abuzz with reports from folks who are locked out of their accounts. When I went looking for more definitive word on what as going on, I checked TechCrunch–it has covered the outage and calls it “systemwide.”.

I also visited Google’s official Gmail blog in hopes that it might be a source of information on what’s wrong and when it might be fixed, but the last post there is a week old. I read a whole bunch of Google’s blogs and find them valuable when the company’s up to something new and interesting, but they will be far more valuable if and when the company chooses to use them to communicate with customers in real time about issues like this.

I also find the error message above less than entirely clarifying, since it sounds like it’s my particular inbox that’s feeling sickly at the moment. As Slate editor John Dickerson said on Twitter when he got the same message:

TechCrunch says that Comscore estimates that 20 million people visit Gmail every day; I’m sure that a goodly percentage of those folks, like me, absolutely depend on it for both personal and professional use. Google’s track record for dependable service is generally so strong that it’s easy to get complacent and assume that its stuff will always be there when you need it. So I’m going to consider this outage a perversely useful reminder that it’s always good to have a backup strategy. Especially when it comes to services you don’t pay for, and even when those services come from big, technically savvy companies like Google.

Update: At the moment, my Gmail access is back, but the service is loading really, really slowly. I’ll hope that’s a sign that things are on their way back to normal.

Let’s end this with a silly little poll:

Further update: I can get into both of my Gmail accounts again, with no signs of trouble. Let’s hope that the outage is over–and that Google tells us what happened.

Furthest update of all: Google has posted about today’s outage on the Gmail blog. And I in turn have posted about that post.


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