Google bug maroons users

By danwarne, October 28 2010
Google bug maroons users

Travellers are furious they can't access their Google Docs due to a major bug in Google's systems.

Google has acknowledged that the bug is their #1 top priority to fix at present, though it has been listed in the Google Docs known issues page for almost a week.

The problem occurs if a user has both a personal Google account (such as Gmail) and a company Google Apps account, for their documents and work email. Google recently introduced a feature to enable easier switching between accounts, and if it detects a user has multiple accounts, gives them a screen at login time allowing them to "Select an account to use with Google Docs".

However, Google Apps customers have been finding that after logging in to their account, they either can't access their account at all, or they can't open any documents in their Google Docs library.

The error presents itself as "This webpage has a redirect loop" in Chrome, "Too many redirects occurred trying to open http://xyz. This might occur if you open a page that is redirected to open another page which then is redirected to open the original page," in Safari and "Too many redirects" in Firefox.

The problem is particularly inconvenient for Google's primary target audience for its Google Apps service -- businesspeople who want to work from multiple locations and collaborate with their colleagues. 

Storing documents online can be a godsend for travellers -- until the online service stops working. Google's key competitor, Microsoft, says it has designed its Microsoft Office 365 online service so that all documents that a user works on are also stored locally on their computer, and although Microsoft has been actively developing its own internet services strategy, Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer hasn't held back in his criticism of Google Docs, being quoted in articles like "Google Apps blow, no one actually uses them".

Google, meanwhile, is contrite about the problem, but has not been able to fix it in the past week. "It has been marked as the highest priority bug and we're actively working on it. We'll get it out as soon as it is fixed. Again, we really apologize for the inconvenience," said a Google employee, writing in the company's "Known issues" page.

A workaround recommended by Google is to sign out of all Google accounts, clearing the browser cache and cookies, and then only using one Google account per browser. Simply clearing cache and cookies is not enough -- users must also sign out of their accounts.

Critics of internet-based applications have long warned that trusting a large company with your data could result in unforeseen consequences. One user posting on the Google Known Issues page commented, "I concur with comments made above about the lesson Google has given all of us on Cloud computing." Another user commented, "PLEASE - this is unacceptable for a business product. Back to Word...sigh"

Google Australia said users should follow the workaround described in the known problems page and only use one login per browser. Although many users report they cannot access their documents, even after following Google's workaround, Google Australia's Courtney Hohne said the bug was "not an outage" and would therefore not qualify under Google Apps Premier's 99.9% service level uptime agreement.

However, this provides no comfort to travellers stuck overseas who have not seen the "known issues" page, and are not aware of Google's proposed workaround.

Kelly Innis, Product Manager for Online Services, Microsoft Australia, said Microsoft's upcoming online Office 365 suite was designed to provide users with significant protection against online service downtime.

"We feel that a key differentiator for Microsoft is that our SLAs are financially backed on a 99.9% uptime, amortised across the month. So, if Microsoft is down for more than 45 minutes in any one month, that means we haven't met our SLAs, and the whole month's fee is given back to our customers."

"Also, if the user has Office 2010 on their PC, then all of the documents they work on in Office 365 are also cached locally, which means if the web service does go down, their most recently used documents are cached on their PC and are accessible and safe."

Online documents: the big three

Google Docs: free of charge, or $US50 per year for the "Premier" version with 25GB mailboxes, 24hr tech support and 99.9% uptime guarantee. Provides web-browser apps for word processing, spreadsheets and presentations. All documents are stored on Google servers, though they can be exported one-at-a-time for offline editing.

Microsoft Office 365: currently in a free beta, and due for commercial launch in 2011. The service (with 24hr tech support) provides versions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint in a web browser and allows multiple users to collaborate on a document in real-time. It has a 99.9% uptime guarantee, and will be available from $US6 per month.

Zoho Docs: free of charge, $US3 per month with 5GB storage or $US15/mth for three users with 24/5 tech support (not available on weekends). Documents, spreadsheets and presentations.

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