Consider including…

Gmail logo

Let me get something out of the way straight up. I am a fan of Google. Are their services and products flawless? Probably not. Did they live up to their stated objective of “do no evil”? Well I guess the Chinese difficulties didn’t exactly paint them in the best light, nevertheless I can think of less savoury technology companies. On the plus side, I have used Google’s services and, in particular, their cloud-based e-mail – Gmail – for years and been very happy with them. If I explain that my smart phone is a Nexus One, you will probably get the general idea.

Gmail fail?
Image edited and truncated to fit page - click for full version

However, Google have introduced a “feature” into Gmail which leads me to question what on earth they were thinking. This is the “Consider including” function. When you type an e-mail, Gmail comes up with a list of people that you may like to also copy it to. Let’s pause and just think about this. You are writing an e-mail, generally the first thing that you do is to type in the address of the person (or people) you are writing to. Gmail has a useful feature that scans your previous mails, so typing “Pe” will bring up “Peter Thomas” as an option. So far so good. But then, based solely on this first e-mail entered (not even on the subject), the bar highlighted in pale yellow appears above with a list of people that you may consider including on the mail.

Google’s algorithms may be great at figuring out which context-based ads to display alongside the advertising-supported Gmail (though I must admit to never having clicked on any of these and to generally mentally filtering them out), but how does an algorithm know better than me who I want to send an e-mail to? I suppose we could give the geniuses at Google the benefit of the doubt, maybe they do know.

Sadly empirical evidence is that the software doesn’t have a clue. In the example above, the contacts “J”, “L” and “R” (the names have been anonymised to protect those irrelevant to the context) have nothing whatsoever to do with the e-mail recipient (again anonymised) that I started writing. Aside from perhaps once being cc’ed in an e-mail sent to the person whose address I typed in, they have no relation to either the intended recipient, or indeed to each other. As to content, at this point there isn’t any, so it is anyone’s guess how Google generates the list; an even more worrying question is why do they?

Not only does the feature fail to work, it is also totally asinine. It might make some sense for say Facebook to suggest people with whom you might want to share a link. However, there are people who you might e-mail twice a year for very specific purposes, that still get suggested in a “Consider including”. Google plainly doesn’t know better than me to whom I actually want to send an e-mail. A worry is that a stray click and a lack of attention could send an e-mail to someone who is not intended to see it. Given the fact that many small businesses and sole-trader consultants rely on Gmail, then – in extremis – this could lead to commercially sensitive (or indeed personally private) information being sent to the wrong person. The feature is clearly ill-advised and – worst of all – you cannot (at present) turn it off.

In searching (via Google) for tips on how to get rid of this truly abysmal piece of functionality I came across two things: screeds of people just like me asking what Google was thinking and the an article entitled: Gmail’s Most Ridiculous, Idiotic, Intrusive, Useless Feature Ever by Zoli Erdos, which covers the problems and potential implications of “Consider including” in more depth. Here is a pithy quote:

I’ve never thought the day would come I would write the words utterly ridiculous, iditiotic, intrusive, with absolute certainly about a Google feature

This “feature” is bad enough to have merited me writing to Google asking them to remove it, or at least make it optional. Their support forums are full of people saying the same. It will be interesting to see whether or not they listen.

[Disclosure: I have more than one Gmail account and also use Google apps from time to time, as stated above, I also use Feedburner and have a Google smart phone. Other than this I have no commercial relationship with Google and have never bought or recommended their services in a business context]

More problems for Googlemail

Googlemail failure (note the 'Beta' in small type by the logo)

Back on February 24th 2009, there was a major outage of Google‘s on-line mail service, googlemail, or gmail as it was originally called. I posted an article covering this back then.

Today Googlemail had another outage – it is still down as I type. Indeed the Twitterverse is rapidly filling up with tweets mentioning #googlemail and #fail.

While a very wide range of people use Google’s mail service and this hiatus may be no more than an inconvenience for many (and an excuse to tweet for others – not that many people need one of these nowadays), it is more serious for people who rely on Googlemail professionally. At one end of the spectrum are those organisations who have outsourced their corporate mail to Google. That is where mail to and from is actually supported on Google’s infrastructure. But it is also bad news for the many independent consultants who rely on Googlemail for communication, be that with a extension, or (in the same way as with large companies) using

In many ways communication failures may be more serious for this second group. Customers of large organisations will probably come back again, but consulting opportunities may be missed and deadlines lapse for the want of e-mail availability.

Before I spread too much doom and gloom, I should offer the perspective that I have never come across an e-mail system (corporate or otherwise) that didn’t crash sometimes, the beast just doesn’t exist. However, Google are a victim of their own stability. Because Googlemail is reliable 99.9% of the time (I have no idea about the real value, but would assume it is in the high 99s), we come to expect it to be there, even though it is essentially free (OK subsidised by in-line advertising if you will).

The very fact that the service is very reliable makes it even more annoying when it fails. No one grumbles much when doesn’t work, because it is always failing. Perhaps Google’s strategy should be to have more frequent problems with Googlemail, so that users expectations are set at a more realistic level.

Google mail problems


Along with millions of others today I suffered from the outage in Google‘s web-based e-mail service, Gmail (or googlemail). After the initial frustration, I began to think about how much we all rely on these “free” (aka advertising-supported) web-services and how much we feel bereft when they are not around. It is the equivalent of having an electricity black-out.

A number of other points occur:

  1. What happened to Google’s famed redundancy and massive server farms?
  2. Why did the outage last so long?
  3. Why were more informative error messages not posted, as opposed to the (rather hopeful) suggestion that you might care to try again in 30 seconds?
  4. Should I really have kept track of my HotMail account details?
  5. Was Outlook really that bad? [OK I might be getting carried away with this last one]

Mail outages happen. Perhaps they happen more in corporate environments if you allow for the number of mail users that Google supports. Last year I suffered a three day mail outage in a corporate environment, rather ironically relying on Gmail at the time. Maybe of greater concern to Google is the potential impact of problems like this on their move to provide corporate mail via their Gmail platform. I’m sure that their availability meets or exceeds that of most in-house mails systems, but problems like today’s create the wrong impression. This is particularly the case when they follow hard on the heels of their search problem of a few weeks back, when every page of every site was tagged as potentially harmful to your computer (true as this point might be philosophically).

In some ways it might even be comforting to some IT professionals to see that the best and biggest can be plagued by problems. But before we luxuriate in schadenfreude too much, it is worth reflecting that when any element of IT goes wrong, consumers of it tend to see this as an attribute of IT as a whole – after all it’s just yet another IT problem isn’t it?

This post was one that Computing used to compile their Editor’s Diary article about the gmail outage and also is featured in Editor Bryan Glick‘s further article explaining his innovative use of twitter to source the material.

There are also some discussions related to this area on the CIO Magazine Forum (as ever you need to be a member of and the group to read these).