Google mail fail bodes poorly for paid Google apps

Memo to the Gmail team at the Googleplex: even "free" has a price. When Gmail suffered a widespread outage on Tuesday, around 3 p.m. EST, Twitter lit up with reports of the outage, and a number of big news sites immediately posted word of the shutdown. I personally spent two hours thrashing about, trying to retrieve a few key e-mails out of my Gmail. (I have AOL accounts, too.). If I were a paying Gmail customer, I'd be hopping mad.

I just wonder what the folks down in Los Angeles County are thinking right now. They had recently decided to switch over to a suite of Google apps. (Note to Redmond: can you say "marketing opportunity"?) With wildfires raging all over the Los Angeles area and critical decisions being made at a rapid clip, loss of e-mail would be more than an annoyance. (Granted, it's only a loss in the browser, but that's where most people use Gmail.) And it's entirely possible that L.A. did lose some or all of its Google (GOOG) e-mail capabilities.
To put it bluntly, these outages, while rare, remind us that in some key ways, Gmail and other hosted Google apps may not be ready for prime time. Why do I say this? Because the only notification I got of this outage was a 502 server error message that did not indicate that there were any specific problems with Gmail. Apparently, the Google team did not think that this was important information to convey to customers who rely on the increasingly popular e-mail system.

Changing the error message that shows up in browser windows during an outage is a fairly trivial procedure. And it's a basic bit of common sense to keep users posted on what's going on, rather than forcing them to search Twitter, news articles, and forums to find out the cause of their troubles. Google's response reminds me of a few hellish flying experiences, where my plane was delayed or rerouted, but the crew gave us no information whatsoever about where we would end up, when we would get there, or just about anything else.

Today's outage, smack in the middle of prime working hours, also sends out a message to any large companies that had decided to move to Google apps for e-mail. That message is simple -- don't do it yet.

Considering that Google is in the midst of its first real ad campaign, which is viewed as a precursor to a sales push for paid versions of Google Apps, the timing of this outage could not be worse. Google, if you're going to run mission-critical apps, and they go down, that's bad. But if you let them go down and don't tell anyone about it in any real sense of the word -- and no, putting a notice on the app status dashboard does not cut it; it doesn't even come up in top Google results, for crying out loud -- then that's much, much worse.
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