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By | Guy Kewney 26th July 2007 13:36

Gmail: a short, sharp rant

Not evil, just arrogant

First person Is arrogance a job requirement when trying to join Google?

This story starts with me being furious. "I was bloody furious when my email provider suddenly, and without warning, started bouncing incoming messages." You would be, wouldn't you?

Call me fussy, but I've been told this is the sort of thing which can give a small, struggling ISP a lasting bad reputation. My email provider?


Yes, I'm a life-long* Gmail user and have been telling people how much better it is than Toytown free mail systems like Hotmail or Yahoo!. And when I signed up, it certainly was - offering enough storage (a gigabyte, wow - at that time Hotmail and Yahoo! were clogging up if you had 10 megs in your inbox) that they were able to say "never delete an email again".

But the situation here was quite unequivocal. A friend rang up and said: "I sent you that email, and I've just got a message from Google saying:

A message that you sent could not be delivered to one or more of its recipients. This is a permanent error.

I have to delete mail before I can receive more. Why wasn't I told? Indeed, why should I have to? I can remember the ballyhoo of Gmail's launch: "Never delete an email again." And indeed, if I log onto my account, I see the blurb there: "Who needs to delete when you have over 2000 MB of storage?"

That's the message showing in my gmail account right now, but I still have to delete stuff.

It's a cockup. The problem is very simple indeed: Gmail was set up as a browser-based mail service. You go to and log in, and as you log in it shows you how much spare space you have. Excellent! - except that since then, Google added a new feature to mail: POP3 email collection.

This means you can tell your Thunderbird or Outlook program where to collect the mail. That means you can carry on using email, even if you're offline. Wonderful... except that when you look at your Thunderbird inbox, there's no message about how much spare space you have.

It's a really simple thing to fix. All Google has to do is arrange for a warning to be sent to POP3 users when the mailbox fills up. It's a small story, not many dead: so, I will write the (brief, but worth-recording-for-posterity) story for El Reg. It should take all of 10 minutes.

Here's what is supposed to happen:-

  1. I ring up the Google press office, and tell them what I've found
  2. They say "Oh, wow! I'm sure the tech people will get onto that. Would you like a chat with someone on the team?"
  3. I write a positive-spin piece saying: "Small problem quickly fixed: Google mail gets better and better!" - going on to say that there was a small problem for POP3 users, and they're on the case, and quoting a reassuringly expert developer saying how easy it will be to fix and how it will be done in days...

That's what you'd get with most IT companies. Not with Google. Here's what actually happens:

  1. I ring the Google press office.
  2. I try to get this message across to the superior young lady with the cut-glass accent.
  3. She tells me she is "busy right now" but could I send an email with the questions?
  4. I say: "That's OK, I just want a quick word with someone who can say they're fixing it."
  5. She tells me she can't do that, and insists on the email, so I send it, complete with a summary of what happens, and why it's a problem.
  6. She calls me back, and says: It's not a problem."

What she gives me is, simply, excuses, excuses. "There's a message when you log in" she says. Yes, I know; but if you have POP3, you don't see it. "Yes, but there's a message at the bottom of the page." Yes, I know, but if you don't use the web interface, you don't see it. "But the limit is there, obviously." Well, it's obvious if you see it but if you have POP3, you won't see it, will you?

"I'll refer it to the team," she says, waiting for me to hang up.

Now, if anybody at Google tells you that they'll forward it to the team, what they mean is "Go away, you silly little unimportant person." I've been there before.

For example, there was the time when I wrote a thumping good story for my own website (NewsWireless), a story which didn't show up on Google's news pages. Why not? I asked a friend, who said: "Did you register?"

So I went to the Google pages and filled in all the forms to register my site. And six months later, I wrote another thumpingly good story and... it still didn't show up.

So I followed up, sending email to the "contact us" page on the Google site, and getting a "Thanks for your suggestion! It will be considered with all the other lame ideas users send in..." or words to that affect. And so I replied, and after getting three robot replies, I finally got a note from a human being, who works at Google.

It said: "Your site isn't listed, because we don't list blogs."

NewsWireless isn't a blog. Occasionally, the site prints blog entries, but it's a news site with a couple of dozen regular contributors. I pointed this out, and sent them a list of contributors - and, finally, the paperwork went through. But if I had just accepted the first (and second and third) patronising assurance that "your suggestion will be considered!" I'd still be a blog.

And if I don't publish this piece,  the Gmail "team" will never get to hear about the POP3 problem.

And so then I asked to talk to someone who could give me a quote.

"We can't put up someone for interview for every little thing!" the young lady told me coolly. "But you can send an email to the press office, and one of my colleagues will take it up, tomorrow. I'm not here tomorrow."

Don't be Evil. No, of course not... but it's not actually evil to look down on the little people. Just ignore them. They'll quickly learn their place in the pecking order... that's right, Larry Page? That's what you meant, Sergey Brin? ®

*well, as long as there's been a Gmail, I've been one, OK?

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