Saturday, November 24, 2007

Google Mail’s breakdown - the pathology of software ‘enhancements’

A few months ago, as regular readers (if any) will recall, I switched my email service from AU’s antiquated Lotus Notes software to gmail. I wrote enthusiastically about the ease of changing over and about the user-friendliness and reliability of this web based service. In weekly meetings of AU’s Office of Information Technology Directors, I supported the idea of moving AU’s students to Gmail and initiating a pilot project that would experiment with gmail service for faculty and students, as well.

There was no reason the question my decision - until this weekend. Inexplicably, things have now gone terribly sour. Problems began wehn I upgraded to the new version of Apple’s Safari browser. Suddenly, I no longer had automatic access to my gmail address book, a feature that is essential for emailing, responding or forwarding to multiple addressees. Possibly this was a problem with Safari, not gmail, I thought. I switched to my alternate browser, Firefox, and the problem was solved - temporarily. But when I arrived at my home for an extended Thanksgiving weekend and tried to access gmail via my satellite connection (and then by a telephone connection) there was no access. Later there was very limited access, but no address book access. I was reduced to looking up addressees on my Blackberry and typing them in manually, not an efficient solution for a heavy user.

Why does a system that has been providing great service suddenly breakdown? I have had this experience not only with gmail but with AU’s online “Learning System” provided by Blackboard, Inc. All too often, the problem is ‘enhancements’ initiated by software developers. They are creative individuals who cannot bear to leave well enough alone. Nor are they willing to rigorously test the results of their enhancements in the varied settings that users encounter. This is left to the users, themselves who become - unwilling - and unwitting - beta testers for incomplete or slovenly work. These software development tinkerers are found not only at google inc. and Blackboard inc., but at Microsoft ( possibly the worst offender ) and even Apple - witness the “improvements” to the new version of iMovie.

Since I have supervised IT operations at two Universities - I know the breed well As a manager, I regard restraining the depredations they can wreak on unwitting users as one of my major responsibilities. I wish this commitment were more widely shared.

In due course, I have no doubt that the problems with gmail and perhaps even with the Blackboard Learning System will be fixed. Or, in my role as an unwitting beta tester, I will after several wasted hours, come up with a work-around. I will experiment, check out list serves and speak with friends. Things will return to normal. I will be sadder and wiser. Another software provider’s reputation will be tarnished. Soon the cycle will be repeated.

There has to be a better way!

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Blogger Sol said...

I too have experienced the same New Gmail -Safari address book disconect. my solution is to go back to "older version " of Gmail, a feature on the right hand side of the Gmail screen. the address book works.

A new problem is now Adobe 8 reader. My PDF files pop up for a minute and then Safari crashes to the Finder. Does anyone know what is going on there?

2:54 PM  

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