Gmail activation problem in Apps finally solved

Ron Goodwyne, who runs IT services provider company Affordable IT Guy with his wife in Charleston, South Carolina, had just set up Google Apps for a client on Friday when the bug arose.

Of his client’s 10 users, five were affected. Two of them finally gained access to Gmail during the day Wednesday, and the others at some point overnight, he said in a phone interview.

“That was the first time I’d ever seen that happen with Google Apps, and I became rather frantic,” said Goodwyne, who has set up Apps for 15 or 20 other clients.

In his experience, users gain access to Gmail within hours of completing the setup process. Only once did a client have to wait a day, he said.

With this incident, the affected users went between four and five days without access to Gmail. “The client was pretty frustrated. It’s a business that’s heavily dependent on e-mail,” Goodwyne said.

If the problem had lasted until Friday, he would have reverted the accounts back to their previous e-mail provider.

While the problem itself was frustrating, what made it worse for Goodwyne was what he perceived as very poor and slow communication from Google about the problem, its causes and estimated solution time.

Although Google Apps administrators began reporting the trouble in the official discussion forum for the hosted collaboration and communications application suite on Friday and throughout the weekend, Google’s first acknowledgement came a little before noon on Monday.

In that posting, however, the Google representative only said the company was “looking into this issue” and asked administrators to post their domains so Google could investigate further.

Google’s next communication came more than 24 hours later, at around 1 p.m. Tuesday, when it did acknowledge the problem was with its own systems and gave the original estimated resolution time.

“My confidence in Google has definitely suffered. It’s hard to quantify how much. I’m certainly not prepared to go and move everyone off of Apps. My biggest frustration wasn’t so much that the problem existed but that you couldn’t get any information for three or four days,” Goodwyne said.

It makes a big difference for Apps administrators, whether they are outside consultants like Goodwyne or in-house IT staff, to be able to tell their clients or end-users what the problem is, what Google is doing to fix it and when it might be solved.

“You might not have the happiest customer in the world, but you have him placated at least for the time being. But when all you can do is go in and say, ‘there’s a problem and I have no idea when it will be fixed,’ that’s a pretty uncomfortable situation to be in,” he said.

Goodwyne’s client signed up for the free Standard version of Google Apps, which doesn’t include phone support. He recognizes that Standard edition users can’t expect the same level of responsiveness as those who use the paid Premier version, which includes phone support.

However, Goodwyne said Google owes Standard edition users an acceptable level of communication either via mass e-mails or timely and useful postings on the Apps discussion forum. After all, Google Apps is designed for workplace use, where availability is key, and Google does generate revenue from ads placed in the product.

“They need to be more responsive. They’re offering a free product, so you won’t have the same level of support as in a paid product, but they went for days without responding at all and then took another full day to actually say ‘we have a problem,’” he said. “You could tell from all the people posting on the forum there was a tremendous amount of frustration.”

The administrators’ impatience stemmed from the fact that once the process to transfer control of their domain to Google Apps begins, they can’t access their e-mail until their Gmail accounts are activated.

While the problem lasted, affected users trying to access their inboxes got an error message indicating that the e-mail service was not available. The problem affected Gmail access but not mail delivery, so all messages in affected accounts were routed to their intended inboxes.

Precisely because messages flowed into the locked inboxes, work-arounds existed for the problem. However, Google never suggested any.

Goodwyne, for example, realized that messages could be downloaded to e-mail desktop software like Outlook, although they couldn’t be sent out. He then set up a temporary account unaffected by the activation problem, and set it up for sending e-mails, with the original, affected address as the “reply to” address.

Google Apps is a hosted collaboration and communication suite aimed at workplace use that includes various applications, including Gmail. More than 1 million businesses use Google Apps.

Apps’ Standard and Education versions are free, while the more sophisticated Premier edition costs $50 per user per year and includes, among other premium features, a 99.9 percent uptime guarantee for Gmail and access to phone support. The Education edition also includes phone support.

Last week, a Gmail outage that lasted about 30 hours affected some Google Apps customers. Also last week, an unrelated bug affected both the layout and functionality of the suite’s Start portal pages in some Apps accounts for about 16 hours.

In August, Gmail had three significant outages and as a result, Google decided to extend a credit to all Apps Premier customers and said it would do better at notifying users of problems.

Updated at 4:50 p.m. PT to include comments from an Apps administrator.

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