The Great Wall of Google

I admit it, I use Gmail for my everyday mail (in spite of the fact that Gmail still can’t search). I use Google Reader like an addict, on my phone, my desktops, my laptop, across platforms, wherever.

But I am getting more and more annoyed with The Great Wall of Google.

On my iPhone, I use Google’s ActiveSync to keep my calendars and contacts synched to my Gmail account. I also use ActiveSync for push email; this is pretty sweet. Mail just shows up, no poll-and-fetch nonsense. It mostly works, although every once in a while my phone shows no email in my Inbox. This usually resolves itself in a minute or two.

Google calls the ActiveSync beta but, you know, they called Gmail beta for years. So beta means nothing to a Google user. I use ActiveSync. To some degree I rely on it, just like I rely on Gmail. Both are free. Ish.

Make no mistake, Google makes money off of me. I use Gmail; they get to cull my email contents for aggregate patterns. They get to display ads targeted to me, based on my email contents, my search history, etc. They make money, however tiny a sliver it might be, off of me.

They make a lot of money off the legions of me out there. Indeed, at this point it is clear that Google’s business model is predicated on huge economies of scale. They don’t make money on customers unless there are tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands of customers they can serve identically. Millions? Got me. ‘Lots’ will do.

Anyway, as a user, when things don’t work, I’m sorry; I expect some status. Some information. Some acknowledgement that “Hey, we have a problem!” In short, I expect to be treated like a customer.

Customers? What Customers?
But Google, it appears, doesn’t really believe it has customers, not the way you and I think of customers.

This weekend, ActiveSync push email went down, apparently for every Gmail user. I noticed on Saturday that I was getting, ah, NO emails. This is pretty strange for me. Like most folks, I am usually subject to a torrent of emails, so after a couple hours you start wondering if something is wrong. First I checked my virtual hosting provider, the fabulous JaguarPC, to make sure my email forwarding was up. They have a nice status page that gives you an at-a-glance overview of their whole system.

Things were good there. So, where to go next?

First, I jumped to Gmail on my iPhone via the browser-based app; gee, I have a bunch of email. So … not aproblem with mail getting to Gmail, it’s a problem getting to my phone. Fark. Ok, so I add an IMAP Gmail profile to my phone, sure enough, here comes my email. Not push, but it’s email. Then I start roaming the web looking for info. Twitter, as always is first out of the gate with a bunch of folks complaining — lots of them having noticed earlier than I did.

I google (ha!) for help, and eventually find the Google Mobile Help Forum. In there, I find a couple of threads complaining about the same thing.

But no word from Google. All weekend, there is no word from Google.

Finally, on Monday the 1st, Google speaks, and to be fair it is clear and to the point. Datacenter problems, they happen. I have no doubt Google folks were sweating it; I’d bet they couldn’t have fixed it faster.

“I am not here to bury Google’s engineers, but to praise them.”

But when you have a problem with a Google service, there is no phone number. Not even the cold comfort of Bangledeshi tech support!

There is no one to call. This is the Great Wall of Google.

The fascinating thing to me was that the forum was littered with people saying “I am a Google Premier Apps customer…” or some such, all with the same experience. Paying customers. Same experience.

Mental note: don’t bother to pay Google for anything explicitly. It won’t help.

As an aside, my Yahoo Mail Plus account, which is my backup and gets an echo of all my mail, keeps on staying up. The main reason I use Gmail is the ActiveSync push. Hmmm. And when I had a billing problem I was able to call Yahoo, and straighten things out.

In the past this model of forcing customer interaction through forums and email, of ensuring no human contact, has worked for Google. If occasionally people wondered if Google was a front for aliens, that was ok. But it has started to fray a bit; the initial Nexus One experience was, shall we say, fraught. Google Buzz was a disaster which you have to think would have been handled better if there were phones to ring.

And now this weekend, I was pissed. I am just me, but if Google’s business is predicated on serving lots of customer’s with similar needs, doesn’t it follow that if I was pissed, so were lots of other people? Actually, probably not in this case, as I suspect ActiveSync push on the iPhone is not a really well-known use case outside of geekdom, but … it is a symptom. And you know, Apple is pretty good at customer service … when you are living inside their walled garden …

So come on Google, build some serious health and status pages, add some tech support phone numbers, if only for paying customers. Acknowledge that you do have customers, like it or not.

Google, it is time to build some Windows in your Wall. Especially if you want to compete even tangentially with Apple.

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