Gmail: Visiting the Google team in its native habitat

I have a love/hate relationship with Gmail. As a foolish youth, I entrusted the free version of Gmail in its early beta days with reams of critical communications. Now I'm permanently wedded to at least partial usage of Google (GOOG)'s much-loved, and recently reviled, online email product.

Now, I've had some problems with Gmail, due to recent global or semi-global outages of its online email access and its online contact management system. (Does anyone write emails without auto-complete anymore?) I've also had problems with seriously slow performance, although this improved after I disabled some of the Google Labs e-mail add-ons that were perhaps less beta and more bleeding edge.
Regardless, I've never considered getting rid of Gmail completely. It would take days, maybe weeks, to completely extract myself.

At the same time, I've been hearing more and more about Gmail getting picked up by larger paying customers. The City of Los Angeles yesterday voted to adopt Google as the provider of its e-mail and chat communications infrastructure. In Silicon Valley, the penetration of Gmail among startups is quite heavy. Google cites eye-opening figures -- that 3,000 businesses per day are signing up for Gmail or other Google applications.

Inside the Googleplex

It seemed like time to meet the people behind Gmail. And it was a good excuse to go to the Googleplex, something that every reporter on this beat likes to do -- partly because of the challenge of getting in regularly, and partly to peer at the wizards behind the curtain in their native habitat.

I started my visit as a true outsider, nearly tripping over a baby-blue, single-gear cruiser bike parked outside Building 47. The bikes are omnipresent at Google, as are bright yellow stand-up electric scooters and other unorthodox forms of transportation.I saw two unicycles on one floor -- perhaps a corporate record at a Fortune 500 company. One was parked in near a wall of empty wine bottles and clean stemmed glasses, a juxtaposition I found unsettling.

Also on display: signs of the new frugality. In the go-go years, Googlers could order up eats at all hours; now, to appease investors (and as an acknowledgment that it's growing up), the celebrated cafeteria is closed and empty at 3 p.m. I passed a darkened, empty room with a padded table in the middle of the floor: the massage room.

Quiet Chaos

The Gmail lair was both chaotic and quiet. Most of the hundred or so Gmailers sat in clusters of desks behind massive monitors. The outer wall was lined with glass-enclosed offices, most of them crammed with two or three Googlers in a space built for one. Many wore noise-cancelling headphones to screen out lively discussions that apparently break out over controversial user-interface decisions.

"We decided to knock down all the walls and let people who worked on the same things sit near each other," marketing manager Arielle Reinstein told me. "That way, they can turn around and talk to each other if they need to. And some people who can't handle this arrangement can go work in one of the offices. Or perhaps have a dog allergy," she said, as she motioned to an engineer sporting a "Canine Personal Trainer" T-shirt.

Many of my longheld beliefs about Gmail, I learned, were wrong. I had assumed the GMail team would comprise perhaps a few dozen staffers, but the user-interface and user-experience team took up the better part of a floor; the staffers who build and code the core mail servers and routing-instruction software work in a San Francisco office.

I had also assumed that Googlers used an internal e-mail system that kept working even when Gmail went down. Nope. They eat their own dog food. "When it goes down, then we definitely hear about it -- we start getting phone calls and pages," Reinstein said. "The company loses a lot of productivity when this happens."

Outages and Reliability

My rants about recent outages notwithstanding, Reinstein says Gmail has maintained a 99.9 percent uptime. "When you go to a hosted solution, you're overall going to be able to access your mail more than if you had a server at your forestation, or a laptop that got stolen, or anything that can go wrong," she said. "So there may be some outages, but even so, on average, Gmail is a more reliable way to do e-mail."

I had also assumed that a key perk of being a Google marketing manager was priority access to AdWords, but "We have to bid against everyone else for the same keywords," Reinstein said. "I have a budget just like anyone who buys Adwords."

Of course, she's in an interesting position, as she's charged with marketing a product of that isn't supposed to be marketed by any traditional means. Google doesn't buy advertising beyond itself, nor does it plan out big external marketing campaigns, relying instead on word-of-mouth and viral marketing. So Reinstein's team makes funny videos highlighting what they think are the best things about Gmail, and with luck, Gmail users -- some of whom are quite fanatical -- create their own Gmail marketing videos, like this:

Business to Business

That's not to say Google isn't marketing Gmail to businesses. For the first time, Google is spending money to sell its communications and productivity applications and internal search tools to businesses; it's placing prominent ads in major publications, like BusinessWeek.

But the Gmail team's changes to the product trickle down to Google's enterprise team only after the team in Building 47 has hemmed, hawed, and beta-tested the heck out of any newfangled features (some of which, Reinstein acknowledges, could make the program highly unstable). "That's why we put those features in Google Labs, so people know they are really not quite ready but we want to try them out," she says.

Not surprisingly, the biggest challenge to getting people to sign up for Gmail is the inherent switching costs. The vast majority of Gmail users are young -- because, Reinstein believes, they'd invested less time, effort, and data in e-mail services from Yahoo! (YHOO), Time Warner (TWX)'s AOL, Microsoft (MSFT)'s HotMail, or other rivals. Most other services let users export their address books; exporting actual e-mails, though, is nearly impossible. And since no one throws away e-mail anymore, it's tough to discard a personal e-mail archive.

"Ideally, it would be, you press a button, and you could get out of one system and into a new one," Reinstein says. "We think it would be good for Gmail, because people would choose to switch if they could.

Is such a button in the works? Not yet. But stay tuned.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at
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