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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.

Reader Comments


December 26, 2005 12:47 AM

from the post "review" you linked to:

[quote]For months, every message we sent back and forth carried not only the same original label -- "Going to the B-day party?" -- but gathered all the correspondence into one big ball. [end quote]

What a bunch of crap - i followed that link to see a healthy review, but all i got was a loser whining about how gmail bunched his sorry emails togethar. Seems like he was promoting a yahoo product - and to think of it, yahoo is bunching all the features pioneered by gmail and placing it against their own cluttered settings.

Either you guys should write constructive, balanced reviews or don't call your whining as a review.

Ron K. Jeffries

December 26, 2005 1:01 PM

I've been an avid Google email user
since July 2004. On balance, Gmail has
served my personal email neeeds very well.

My favorite (fairly recent) Gmail
fetaure is that it autosaves my draft

I'm pretty sure the latest from Yahoo
is also good (based on Oddpost) and
I am looking forwrad to seeing how
Microsft's replacment for Hotmail
turns out.

For a web mail client that's
very desktop-y in look and feel,
I am enjoying the relatively new

I do think you are being rather
harsh to Gmail. Google could not
pry Gmail out of my hands
even if they tried. I am a strong
advocate of "Search don't sort."
-ron k jeffries

Karl B

December 30, 2005 12:00 PM

A lot of companies create beta versions of products, then to only have those products ripped from production schedules.

You cannot complain about a free service that openly touts itself as beta, which in essence means an unfinished product.

karen solomon

October 4, 2006 10:47 PM

I always thought gmail was the greatest until today..when I was locked out of my gmail account today and received this frustrating message:
Lockdown in sector 4!

Our system indicates unusual usage of your account. In order to protect Gmail users from potentially harmful use of Gmail, this account has been disabled for up to 24 hours.

If you are using any third party software that interacts with your Gmail account, please disable it or adjust it so that its use complies with the Gmail Terms of Use. If you feel that you have been using your Gmail account according to the Terms of Use or otherwise normally, please contact us using this form to report this problem.

I have sent various emails to google with only one automatic generated relay returned back to me.

I have been left frustrated and helpless as to how to address the situation. My account was accessable for a few minutes again at 5PM today and then I was locked out for a second time.

I contacted the google corporate offices and told that they could not help or assist me with out an employee name to reference. I contacted various individuals and all the google reps told me that there was nothing they could support me with.

I can access my account and my gmail calendar but not my email..ouch

I am a big fan of google, crazy enough I was just reading Fortune Magazine's article

Chaos by design
The inside story of disorder, disarray, and uncertainty at Google. And why it's all part of the plan. (They hope.)

There occurs to be a complete lack of responisblity on googles behalf to the customer.

I can be contacted at: until the day my gmail account is reactivated.

If anyone can support me to ease this email breakdown/nightmare, I would be truly grateful.

Karen Solomon


From: "The Google Team"
Subject: Re: [#76699802] Access form: Sector 4
Date: Wed, 04 Oct 2006 21:52:18 -0000

Thank you for your report. We apologize for any confusion or
inconvenience. For your security, we may temporarily disable access to
your account if our system detects abnormal usage. Abnormal usage
includes, but is not limited to:

- Receiving, deleting, or popping out large amounts of mail (via POP) in a
short period of time
- Sending a large number of undeliverable messages (messages that bounce
- Using third party file-sharing or storing software, or software that
automatically logs in to your account and that is not supported by Gmail
- Multiple instances of your Gmail account opened
- Browser-related issues. Please note that if you find your browser
continually reloading while attempting to access your inbox, it is likely
a browser issue, and it may be necessary to clear your browser's cache and

If you feel that access to this account should not have been disabled,
please respond to the following questions:

1. What task were you performing when you were locked out? (ex:
downloading messages via POP, logging in, sending an email, downloading an
attachment, etc.)
2. What specific error messages are you receiving? Please include the
exact code or text of the message.
3. With which Gmail username are you encountering this issue?
4. Which of the following Gmail features do you use, if any? If POP, which
client do you use in conjunction with Gmail? POP, auto-forwarding, or
Gmail's Notifier
5. Which security software or applications are installed on your computer?

6. Which browser extensions are you using?
7. Has access to your account been disabled before this occurrence? If so,
when, for how long, and with which error message?
8. Did you recently send a message to a large number of invalid addresses
or send more than 500 addresses? If you'd like to learn more about best
practices for sending a large amount of mail through Gmail, please visit:

Upon receiving all the above information, we'll investigate the issue

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Bloomberg Businessweek writers Peter Burrows, Cliff Edwards, Olga Kharif, Aaron Ricadela, and Douglas MacMillan, dig behind the headlines to analyze what’s really happening throughout the world of technology. Tech Beat covers everything from tech bellwethers like Apple, Google, and Intel and emerging new leaders such as Facebook to new technologies, trends, and controversies.



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