Google provided a crash course this week in how not to convince users to upgrade from a free service to a paid one.
Google Calendar users have been complaining about missed email and text message appointment reminders, and several that I've spoken with today said the technical problems and Google's inadequate response makes them wary of handing cash over to Google.
Worse, Google could lose some users altogether.
"If this goes on for another week, I'm going to pull the plug [on Google Calendar]," said Matt DeLange of New York, a consultant who uses the free version of Google Calendar for personal events and the Google Apps fee-based service for work. "I may pull the plug on Gmail too."
For DeLange's personal account, his email notifications stopped weeks ago and his text message reminders started getting spotty a week and a half ago. His paid account at work has been fine, but some users of the business version of Calendar reported problems on Google's support forums.
Google employees monitor support forums and occasionally add comments, but can sometimes go days between communications and often provide only vague timelines for restoring service. (I emailed Google's public relations team last night and haven't heard back yet.)
"With Google's free services, it's like a big black box," DeLange said. "You can throw 10,000 comments at them with this problem and you never hear from them." DeLange has about six personal Google calendars for various types of tasks. Recently separated, he said he and his wife use the service to coordinate care for their son.
David Martin of San Francisco, an enterprise software veteran who's worked for Oracle, SuccessFactors and Saba, is an advisor to startups and nonprofits and says he was considering helping some of his clients move to Google Apps.
"In all honesty, this and other bugs, and the lack of any responsiveness from online support has caused me to delay upgrades to the paid versions," said Martin, who has experienced Google Calendar problems over the last couple of months.
"I've had problems on and off since 2008 but they were never that annoying, because I tried their fixes and sometimes they worked, until the last month or two when they died altogether," he said.
As of a week ago, Martin was getting only about half of his email reminders. It's been getting better over the last couple of days but it's still not 100%, he said. If he doesn't receive his daily agenda email, which lists all the appointments of the day, he copies and pastes them into another file. "I'm almost back to paper," he said.
Martin doubts upgrading to the paid version - which costs $50 per user per year - would help. "Having been in the software industry for a couple of decades, I would be surprised if it's a different code line for Calendar, so I can't imagine that it would be different in terms of bugs," he said.
Martin likes Google services, so he won't rush to replace them, but he is starting to consider alternatives such as Zoho. Yahoo has a calendar system, but Zoho offers both a calendar and word processor.
A third user I talked to, Susan Ricci of New York, has been using Google Calendar with her Android phone since last August. "It's been working like a charm up until three weeks ago, and that's when my notifications just stopped working," she said.
That was true for both her email and text notifications. Not content with Google's support forums, Ricci faxed a letter to Google CEO Larry Page and other executives. "If I don't get responses, I tend to go to the top," she said. "I'm really surprised at the lack of response."
Ricci, an administrator for a nonprofit organization, said she has started getting email notifications, but texts still aren't coming in.
Google's phone support is limited to paying customers, and even then it is technically limited to emergencies in which the majority of a business's users can't access the service.
According to DeLange, it used to be easy to get a human being on the phone when calling support for Google Apps, but getting a live person is now difficult. "It was a bit of a bait and switch," he said. "Now you have to go through this process where it's like paying your taxes to try to get someone on the phone." DeLange said he wouldn't mind paying $200 per person per year, if Google provided robust support.
The last support forum update from a Google employee was on Wednesday, when Calendar users were told "We hope to have this resolved for everyone soon." A separate problem last year, in which calendar events were displayed on the wrong days, took more than a week to fix.
Workarounds for the appointment reminder gitch, such as deleting old events and re-creating them, are cumbersome and haven't worked for everyone. Meanwhile, the complaints are piling up.
Jon Brodkin writes about Microsoft, Google, browsers, operating systems, PCs, mobile devices, cloud computing, virtualization, open source and a bunch of other tech stuff for Network World. He also cares just a little bit too much about Boston sports teams. Follow Jon on Twitter @jbrodkin.
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