I learned a hard lesson last week. A lesson which began with me getting locked out of my Gmail.
After reading about Matt Honan’s nightmare last summer, I had migrated all of my online communications to GMail, under the security promise of its two factor authentication. The two factor authentication lasted all of 2 weeks, because it was more trouble than help. Between Chrome and my accounts across three machines and two mobile devices, I was spending more and more time logging in rather than getting any work done.
Still i was secure in the belief that Google would flag me off on unusual activity on my mobile. After all thats what they had taken it for. I was never more mistaken.
On the afternoon of Thursday the 28th of March, when I tried to login to my Gmail I was greeted with a simple error message “Sorry. Your account has been disabled”. First step panic – has someone gotten in and deleted my account? Breathe… No. The message said ‘disabled’. Next step support.
Except Google doesn’t make it easy. After getting into the having trouble signing in page, Google took me to through a flowchart asking me all the issues I was facing. Except that a four step form which ends in a message which says
If you’ve been redirected to this page from the sign-in page, it means that access to your Google Account has been disabled.
Umm! I know that, what do I do to resolve this issue. At the very bottom of this page, Google has added a link – “Review the TOS and contact us”. I am not reviewing anything right now, so I jump straight to the form.
The message on the form is not inspiring “We’ll follow up with you only if we require more information or we have additional information to share.” The question is even worse – “Describe what happened when your account became disabled” – I tried to login? Is that a suitable answer. Anyway I filled in a response and got the standard boilerplate on submission.
I was locked out – of my mail, of my analytics data, of my Adsense earnings (Yes I had earnings!), my Youtube account and my Reader account. I was very annoyed about all of them except GMail. No access to Gmail was a disaster.
Once I was over the initial stress, I cleared my head and through the situation through. My data was safe across multiple local backups, but I had to ensure i did not lose new data. I spent the rest of the day changing my email ID in a lot. and I mean a lot of places. A simple post on facebook informed my friends and family, but I had to change the email Id across 2 banks, the Income tax authorities and a bunch of non google services.
This was not the end of the issue though. On Monday morning (when I checked again) I was able to login again. First thing I did is change my password and setup a auto forward to my other mailbox. I also assume that only access to the account was blocked, because I had received mail over the course of the 4 days I couldn’t log in. After auto forwarding my mail, I also moved my must use Google services to an alternative (now primary) email.
Too big to fail?
Google announced today that they have extended Google+ apis to allow developers to build one click logins to various sites. Google Maps runs mapping across almost all smartphones and feature phones running in the world today. Android devices do not work without a Google Account. Google Analytics is the de-facto solution for website analytics. Google reader defined the RSS market. Google has crawled our internet and probably has more information on our webpages than it shows us in search results.
Given the status that this company has built which started as an archiver and indexer of all knowledge and has know extended to a keeper of all knowledge, Google has become too big to fail. Let me state an example.
Google at its heart is an ad business. Sometimes innovative, but these days mostly arrogant & people ignorant. Given this intention – the primary focus of the Maps product has been to provide an basis for the publishing of local ads. Suppose that Google decides that local advertising is not working, not delivering the profits it should. Google may decide to close their maps product or stop updating it. What is the result – a market vacuum. It is not correct to say that there are other vendors in the market. Google’s free mapping product has reduced the marketshare of these specialized mapping companies. Will they be able to fill a void left when Google suddenly decides to stop.
This is a real fear. Google is no longer an American company. It is a global company which happens to be headquartered in the USA. It must be answerable to the whole world and not with its current attitude.
So, what should one do
While this experience has left me wary of Google and it’s products, that does not mean that I will forswear the use of technology and internet enabled services. Having said that, I think it is vital that people consider some basics about services online
- Don’t get an email account and services linked to the email account from the same provider. This is what caused me the most amount of problems. I did not want to juggle multiple email accounts and so all my vital services (Mail, Reader, Analytics, Adsense, Adwords) were tied to one email Id. So when my Gmail account was blocked, my entire Google account was blocked. Because I had Analytics and Adsense setup to be accessed from an alternative Google Id, I was not in too bad a position.
- Host your own email – While not a solution for everyone, as far as possible, get a hosting service and setup and run your own email server. Most service providers provide you with IMAP and POP3 access which ensure your mail is accessible everywhere. ( I recommend my host MediaTemple for a clean, painless service and excellent support). Don’t like the interface? route the mail into Outlook’s interface using the external email settings option.
- If the data you store in a product or service is critical – pay for the service. My issue with Google in this case is that, it’s primary business model is not its services but its advertising. What that means is that Google is free to change its priorities even where people may be paying customers. For example paying for Gmail does not free you from ads. It only gets you more storage. And that too only up to a limit.When I pay for a service like Evernote, or Dropbox – I have some measure of a service guarantee, in that the companies primary business is what they are selling, and they are not going to stop providing the service because they have changed their priorities.
- Backup, Backup, Backup.Wise words under any circumstance. In my view until a file exists in three places, it doesn’t exist at all. Getting locked out of Gmail meant I could not get at new mail. However my old mail existed on a archive on my mac, so i still had access to my vital communications and records.
- Look for the support options. Before you buy, check your support options. I’m not deliberately bashing Google here, but the fact is, that of most online service provider (including the big 3) Google provides the least human support interfaces. Both Microsoft and Apple have support contacts, and also have very active support forums – where company support teams provide active help. This is also true for services like Dropbox. Google fails miserably on the support front.
So on the whole, did Google completely lose a customer here – maybe. I still retain my use of Google Analytics and am still a member of the Adsense programme. Search is still Google. But will I keep any of my core data there anymore – No.