When Betas Go Bad
Posted by: Sarah Lacy on December 22, 2005
A few months ago BusinessWeek’s Steve Baker reviewed Gmail calling it a bit too quirky. While his points were very well taken—and a good many people agree—I was already a staunch Gmail lover and nothing could dissuade me.
Before Gmail I had never quite mastered the personal email account. I was already on my work account 90% of the time, so my parents or my husband would just try me there first. I’d set up Yahoo accounts but never check them. I had a home Comcast account that was always on in our home office, but I rarely even touch that computer—thanks to my laptop and the magic of WiFi.
After some prodding I finally set up a Gmail account earlier this year. I soon grew to love its, yes, quirky ways of organizing messages as conversations; I didn’t have to worry about size; I never got spam; and since it’s Web-based I could quickly check it whenever and wherever I wanted. I soon started telling family and friends to email me there, not at BusinessWeek, promising to actually check it unlike previous email accounts. To me, Google’s genius has been taking an entirely different take on a very familiar application- be it search, or in this case email. My experience made me believe that GoogleBase—if they’re serious about it—could really change the classifieds world as we know it.
And I know dozens of fellow San Franciscans who felt the same way. It seemed I was getting an email a week from friends saying, “I’ve switched my personal email to Gmail.” And who could blame them?
But somewhere amid all this Google-loving enthusiasm we all forgot one thing: Gmail is a beta project. A painful lesson, as it turned out. Yesterday, my husband went to get some important contact information out of his account and he got a quintessentially quirky message saying there was a server problem. Something like: “Cross your fingers and try again in a few seconds,” the screen read. For more than 24 hours he kept trying back and got the same message. Quirky quickly became loathsome.
Livid, he spent five straight hours trying to find somewhere to even report the problem. One obvious problem: You have to email them from your Gmail account. So I invited him again, he opened a new one. Still no progress. While trying to find any ray of hope, he came across a treasure trove of angry chat rooms on this very issue. People whose Gmail accounts had been down for weeks without a word back from customer support, resulting in missed appointments, missed job offers, and missing connections with friends. To read a few, just Google "Gmail" and the irksome line "Cross your fingers.” Well at least Google search helped him feel less alone, even if the company made no other attempt at solving the problem.
On several of these message boards someone had written a snotty note to the affect of, “It’s a beta, what do you expect?” But the truth is there is no such thing as beta testing email. It’s not an application like Froogle or Google Maps that you can run sometimes, not others. You either use it, or you don’t. And when you use it, you need it.
The maddening thing about covering Google as a reporter is they throw out all these betas and you never know what they are serious about, but until yesterday I didn’t realize how maddening that could be as a consumer. We’re seriously considering whether we should close our Gmail accounts altogether—at least until the company makes a greater commitment to supporting, improving, and maintaining it or at the very least provides some customer support. After all, it has been a “beta” for well over a year now. People rely on email. My message to Google? Get in or get out.