Feb 24, 2009

When Gmail Fails, Users Adapt - NYTimes.com [UPDATED /25/09]

Two striking things in this article; 1) we're adaptable and thanks to free stuff we can be, 2) we put up with a lot of poor service, even when we're paying for it.

Thanks to free (but less reliable) web services, we can face a failure and move on to the next tool in our arsenal with only a few minutes of complaining. Yes, it’s a lowering of standards to accept nothing but the fabled “five nines” provided by the wireline phone business, but it’s a road we’ve been on for years. Think about what you will accept from a cell phone in terms of lost connections and dropped calls. Reliability is not keeping us tethered to our landlines by any stretch of the imagination.

Yes, we're all very clever and adaptable. Fortunately (is it fortunate?) there are other channels for communicating asynchronously in a store-and-forward fashion. This is yet another example of how email is so not dead.

But how expensive is it when you are paying for the service, even at $50 bucks a year*? What was the impact of this Gmail outage (~4 hours hours last night) on all the corporate customers who actually paid for the service? A one hour outage of e-mail for some companies can translate into large sums of lost dollars very quickly. That sort of "reliability" does not make a sound business case when it eats up the operational savings that the company chose Google for in the first place.

Given that, I do, in principle, agree with ZDNet blogger Sam Diaz, that customers should not discount the benefits of cloud-based services on a single outage. True (as one commenter points out) if you host your own email it would be you "staying up all night" trying to fix the problem. Yes, outages happen, but when outages translate to huge dollars, sometimes it feels good to have a "throat to strangle" or at least some control over the situation. In the case of last nights Gmail outage, the only control users had was to go somewhere else. In all cases the risks and value need to be weighed out when deciding on how to source a business critical system like email.

The sad but true fact is that we love our communications so much that we are willing to accept poor service even for something we pay for. "Think about what you will accept from a cell phone in terms of lost connections and dropped calls." Ouch, it hurts when you really do consider it. Although reliability is a "cost" for using free services, consumers should never expect it to be a "cost" when the service is paid for. Yet apparently we do.

Five nines is too expensive for most free, consumer-oriented web services to maintain, and realizing that, we seem to be building out our store of redundant communications. So now, when life offers us power outages, snowstorms and even Gmail failures, we’re able to pick right up and keep blogging, tweeting, texting and posting our thoughts into the ether.

My concern is that as customers, we're getting too comfortable with costly service outages. I hope that as Google, Microsoft, IBM and others push the cloud services model to the enterprise that enterprises push back and demand more "nines." Oh and there’s a bonus; us free riders benefit as well.

When Gmail Fails, Users Adapt - NYTimes.com

*The annual price for Google Apps that includes advert free Gmail and other Google tools)

UPDATE 2/25/09: According to Google the outage was for 2.5 hours beginning at 4:30 AM ET February 24, 2009.

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