Google fixes problem with Apps Start page

The bug had caused issues with the layout and functionality of Apps pages for several hours

Google has solved a problem that affected the layout and functionality of the "Start" pages of its Apps hosted collaboration and communications suite.

Although the bug had the potential to affect many customers, it manifested itself only in instances when Apps administrators had customized their organizations' Start page, said Rishi Chandra, Google Apps product manager.

The problem arose apparently Thursday afternoon U.S. Eastern Time and was finally solved at around noon on Friday.

Apps administrators who reported problems in the official Apps discussion forum described what they perceived as being an erratic Start page update designed to make it look and act more like iGoogle, the company's personalized home page service for consumers.

However, Chandra said that wasn't the case, although he understands why the administrators would interpret the incident that way, since the iGoogle logo replaced company logos in affected pages. The problem was caused by a system bug that altered Start pages layouts, broke some links and interfered with some "gadget" applications, like the one for Gmail, he said.

With a permanent fix now in place, all affected Start pages should have reverted back to their normal layout and operation without any loss of data or functionality, Chandra said. Google had prematurely declared the problem solved at around 8 p.m. on Thursday, but problem reports kept flowing in.

Google Apps is a hosted collaboration and communication suite aimed at workplace use, and its Start pages are designed as a portal main point of entry for end-users to their applications, such as Calendar and Gmail. Apps' Standard and Education versions are free, while its more sophisticated Premier edition costs $50 per user per year.

The problem was disruptive at New Hope Fellowship in Springdale, Arkansas, which uses the Apps Education edition. The church's Start page was hit intermittently by the bug between Thursday at around 2 p.m. and noon Friday.

"Our users were trained to access their mail through the Start page. Once that didn't work, they could not access e-mail, which is critical to our work. We had to send paper memos around on how to access the mail without going through the Start page. Very frustrating," said Josh Jenkins, New Hope Fellowship's media director and Apps administrator.

This wasn't the only problem New Hope Fellowship's 40 Google Apps users encountered this week. They also lost access to their e-mail due to an unrelated and prolonged Gmail outage that hit some Apps customers this week.

"Google must improve communication with business customers if they wish to be competitive in the corporate IT space. The 2-sentence 'we're working on it' blurbs posted in the [online discussion] groups are an unacceptable way to treat business clients," Jenkins said.

Susan Novotny, Apps Standard edition administrator at a national nonprofit with 30 users in Ontario, Canada, said that the occasional bugs that hit Google Apps "do shake my confidence a little."

"I guess I expect a spectacularly wealthy company to be as reliable as the average e-mail provider," she added. "But they're providing tools no other provider can."

Nelson & Co. Engineering in Birmingham, Alabama, also experienced the Start page bug, but it wasn't too disruptive for its four Apps Premier users, said Apps administrator Ryan Nelson. The company feels that, despite the hiccups, Apps provides it with a great value at $50 per user per year.

"As a Premier user I would think that these issues would not happen. In the long run, Google Apps has been the best technology move we've ever made. Little issues crop up a couple times a year for less than 24 hours: not ideal, but better than anything else we've ever used," Nelson said.

Others were more frazzled, like an Apps administrator identified as Jay in the official discussion forum, who wrote Friday morning: "I now have over 1,200 users that have no idea how to get into their e-mail. The phones are ringing off the hook. What is going on with customer service these days. This really stinks."

The problem wasn't related to a major iGoogle upgrade the company rolled out on Thursday, Chandra said.

The unrelated Gmail problem this week kept users from accessing their e-mail in some cases for more than 24 hours between Wednesday and Thursday. Google declared that problem solved late on Thursday.

During Google's third-quarter earnings conference call on Thursday, co-founder and Technology President Sergey Brin said that there are now more than 1 million businesses using Google Apps.

Google Apps is one of the best-known examples of a new wave of Web-hosted communication and collaboration suites that are emerging as options to Microsoft's Office and Outlook/Exchange suite.

Apps is hosted by Google in its datacenters and accessed by end-users via a Web browser. The appeal of Web-hosted software like Apps is that it doesn't have to be installed by customers on their own hardware, reducing maintenance costs and complexity. Apps and others like it are also designed from the ground up for workgroup collaboration.

However, when something breaks on the vendors' datacenters, IT administrators have little or no control over how or when to remedy the problem, and are left to appease their angry end-users as best they can.

In August, Gmail had three significant outages that affected not only individual consumers of the free Webmail service but also paying Apps Premier customers. As a result, Google decided to extend a credit to all Apps Premier customers and said it would do better at notifying users of problems.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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