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Farhad Manjoo defends Gmail

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSeptember 5, 2009 12:31 PM


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So Gmail Was Down. Get Over It:

So if Gmail is as good as the power grid, the phone network, and home broadband, why does its failure spark such surprise and outrage--and always make national headlines...An online service's outage, though, is sudden, inexplicable, and communal. Gmail goes down for everyone at the same time, none of us knows why, and because we're all online and gabbing, the news spreads fast. Many people also spend a lot more time on Gmail and other Web services than we do on the phone or watching TV; even if you don't really have any pressing reason to be on e-mail or IM, the idea that someone who needs to talk to you is unable to get in touch can, in these always-on times, be cause for a major freak-out. From a technical standpoint, a Web site's failure may be just a small glitch, but an outage on Gmail, Twitter, or Facebook often feels like a blackout--a major urban event that leaves us all a bit unmoored, flocking to other social networks for group therapy. What's more, many online companies--Google especially--like to hold themselves up as being nearly immune to failure. Your local electricity company rarely boasts about its engineering talent or its huge and multiply redundant data systems; we're trained to expect an occasional power outage and be patient when it happens. But a lot of us simply expect more from Google. If Gmail were actually down nine hours a year, the tech blogosphere would call it a scandal.

Complex pieces of software or networks are never going to be humming perfectly all the time, but it seems that tech marketing is geared to simply never mention that and assume that you will run into "known issues." There's kind of a kabuki-theater aspect to it all. The issue is magnified partly in the case of Google because the company is responsible for a qualitative change in the way we gather information in a very positive sense, the standard is implicitly an unattainable level of perfection.

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