Did You Notice that Gmail Went Down Again?
Test and Monitor | Posted April 05, 2013

You may not have even noticed it yesterday but yes, Gmail went down again. Minor outages for Gmail have become so routine that most of us don’t even complain publicly anymore – we just hit Refresh until it comes back. At least that’s what a colleague of mine did yesterday, when she was trying to check Gmail during a meeting break. We both shrugged and rolled our eyes at the out of service message and chatted calmly until it came back up.

At SmartBear, we have been asking our employees and our customers one question that has many answers: “What is Quality?” You may have seen recent blog posts from our staff, explaining what quality means to them. So, yesterday I found myself thinking about that question and how it related to our calm acceptance of a core application being down… again.

We probably should have known early on that we were in for a wild ride, considering that Gmail launched on April 1, 2004. Google has since become known for their elaborate April Fools’ Day pranks but we have to assume they didn’t mean Gmail to be one. When they took their next big step into the world of native iOS apps in November 2011, things took a significant nose dive. After only an hour, they had to pull their app out of the store due to a significant bug that threw an error as soon as users tried to open the app. Naturally, the online giant took some major punches in the press, including InfoWorld’s mocking statement that “it seems Google’s entire QA team was busy carving 1,000-pound Halloween pumpkins and failed to test the app before foisting it on the world.”

Perhaps the worst publicity nightmare for Gmail was in the last quarter of 2012, when their Web application went through a rollicking few weeks of instability, including one prolonged outage (yes, 18 minutes can be a long time when you have over 400 million subscribers). Thankfully, Twitter must have done their load testing correctly because they managed to withstand the worldwide outrage and cross-marketing efforts that exploded in the Twitterverse.

Of course, those are the events we remember because they were so widely publicized and caused so much overload in the social channels. So how interesting for me to discover that Gmail seems to have been suffering from a series of minor strokes over the last few months, with very little fuss being made. Yesterday’s outage was a great example – a review of DownRightNow shows a pretty constant series of small outages that occur on a regular basis. 

 Is Gmail down right now?

That seems to have affected Gmail’s adoption and use… not at all. So, again, I have to question – what is quality? Have we, as a user base, become so used to the world of Web applications that come and go on a regular basis that we don’t actually have an expectation of 5 9’s for those?

Truth is, I funnel my Gmail to my Outlook.com account, which only doubles my dependency on Web email applications. I have suffered through outages on both products but I, like the rest of the population, have learned to just suck it up and go get another cup of coffee when I can’t get my email.

I’m not sure that’s okay.

We certainly have greater demands for applications that are health or finance related, but we are still setting the overall quality acceptance criteria for mission-critical applications when we accept a lower standard. I don’t want to minimize the accomplishment of Gmail supporting over 400 million users – that’s no small feat. But in the same light, I think that puts a greater responsibility on them to be dependable. So, the next time a Web application goes out from under you, even if it’s just long enough to pour a cup of joe, take a minute to ponder the question of “What is Quality?” and see if you’re still satisfied.

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