A lot of the buzz in ICT is around the new(ish) concept of cloud computing, the idea that you simply subscribe to an IT or application service over the internet rather than develop and/or deliver it in-house.
That model took a series of knocks recently with one prominent service after another falling over. Gmail failed, Google Apps failed, Mobile Me failed. Twitter is always failing.
Despite concerns about availability, the cloud concept appears to be going strong. Google has effectively forced Microsoft to follow suit and start delivering some of its highly profitable desktop software as services. It recently announced pricing for a hosted Exchange service, for instance, which to some extent cuts into markets previously delivered by its channel partners.
That is a case where the disruptive potential of cloud computing can be clearly seen, but with the recent outages we saw a different kind of disruptive potential.
It is unclear how many local users were affected by those outages, but we do know of at least two high-profile enterprise users of Google’s Gmail here. The University of Auckland has rolled it out to 50,000 students after Waikato University delivered it to 25,000.
Now, Gmail is probably fine for smelly teenagers, but at Auckland, at least, staff email is still being delivered in-house.
And that is as it should be, at least until Google proves it can keep the service running.
I’m a happy consumer user of Gmail. The last time I logged in there was a nasty four letter word still sitting below the Gmail logo: “Beta”. You’ll find that word in parts of Google Apps as well.
It is a mystery to me why Gmail still carries that moniker, as it has been available for some years now. Maybe it’s just some sort of acknowlegment that to some extent all software is a work in progress. Software is never really finished, after all.
But among enterprise users it has a more distinct meaning — it applies to software that isn’t ready to use in battle. Software you don’t want to bank your business on.
Maybe commercial users of Gmail get a different version of Gmail from the one I get; a version without that dirty word attached.
So why is Gmail still in beta?
Last year Esquire magazine asked just that question. Google spokesman Jason Freidenfelds responded: “‘Beta,’ for us,” he said, “is more of an internal set of requirements and an indication that we continue to work on the product to make it better and better. Google has very high internal metrics that products have to meet before coming out of beta....”
Okay, so it means pretty much what it always means: not ready for prime time.
Not ready for enterprise use.
But Google also means by the term that it is constantly adding features, including Apps. Gmail, in that sense, isn’t really an email program — it’s a software ecosystem.
The problem is it’s an ecosystem beyond your control. Defenders of the cloud model will say that’s just like electricity. you can’t control electricity supply, can you? and that’s true, but you can control email delivery — and word processing, spreadsheets and your corporate intranet. If something goes wrong with them you can fix them, or at least find a local ass to kick in frustration.
In the light of the recent outages, adding another layer of unreliability onto the electricity system may not seem such a good idea after all.