More Gmail fail: Contact lists break, angering millions anew

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On the heels of a recent massive outage that took down Gmail access globally for several hours, Google (GOOG) suffered another black eye, when the contacts-management portion of its Internet email program went down for several hours on Thursday. Millions of users (including me) were greeted with the message "contacts temporary unavailable" when they accessed their accounts. It remains unclear how widespread the outage is; Google has not issued any word on the nature or status of its problems, beyond an icon notification of problems in the Google Apps Status Dashboard.

Losing access to contacts also means losing access to the auto-complete feature of Gmail, which makes it all but impossible to send emails: no one memorizes many contacts' email addresses these days, precisely due to the prevalence and utility of auto-complete features.
While the majority of Gmail users do not pay for the service, the Mountain View, California-based search giant has been pushing hard to sign up large corporate, government, and academic customers to use Gmail, and its other online applications, to replace Microsoft's (MSFT) pricey Office suite. As I've pointed out, widespread outages of Gmail do not bode well for Google's efforts to take a piece of Microsoft's Office pie.

The last big outage happened in the middle of the horrific wildfires in Los Angeles this month -- and right on the heels of a decision by the City of Los Angeles to adopt Gmail and Gchat as its primary communications tools. Sources at the Los Angeles Fire Department's union expressed grave misgivings about using Gmail, in light of the failures during a critical time. Granted, during that outage, Gmail was accessible via the iGoogle desktop widget -- but that's not terribly helpful for anyone hoping to access Gmail on a mobile phone.

With regard to the bottom line, Google has managed recently to get some traction on selling its Apps Suite to big customers, lining up the likes of Motorola's handset division as clients. But no one likes it when their email goes down for hours, and that rarely happens at large corporations running redundant Microsoft Exchange servers for email. For its part, Google has flawlessly managed a far bigger IT task -- namely, keeping Google's search engine up and running for years without a glitch.

Oh, and for those who say you get what you pay for with a free email service: a little reminder that all those ads served up against Gmail accounts make Google real money. Users are selling access to Google in exchange for free email and other features. That's the deal, and it's not a bad one for Google. So in light of all this, perhaps it's time to take this email thing a little more seriously, Googlers.
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