Disappearing Gmail messages baffle users

There is a growing stream stream of Gmail users who regularly report losing some, many, or all of their messages without a clue as to why

Another user who encountered this problem was Gary S. Moore of Fort Worth, Texas, who had used Gmail without problems for two years until one day last month, when he noticed all his archived messages had vanished from his account, including more than 100 photos.

In Greenwood, Missouri, Monroe Johnson was also affected, when a portion of his stored messages disappeared in October. Johnson, like Sessum and Squazzo, doesn't believe an error on his part or a compromised account might be to blame.

"I doubt it. I have been working with computers since 1997," Johnson said via e-mail. He's the only one who has access to his account, he said.

Like other interviewed users who contacted Google seeking help and technical support, Sessum only received a canned reply saying Google had determined that her problem wasn't due to a technical issue with Google systems and that she should change her Gmail password.

"I guess they are insinuating someone bothered to break into my Gmail account with the express purpose of deleting my incoming mail, while deciding to leave my chats and sent mail. Not likely," she said.

Sessum, who also uses the hosted Google Docs applications and other Google services, expected a more helpful answer from the company, considering the extent of her data loss.

"In many respects, I'm building my small business on the back of Google. And I believe that's what Google wants us to do. So it's imperative that they provide at least a little support when something goes wrong," said Sessum, who hosts her blog on Google's Blogger service.

Although consumer Webmail services such as Gmail are generally free, the user expectation is that the data stored in them will not be corrupted, Gartner's Cain said.

In fact, one of Gmail's innovations when it was introduced in April 2004 was the size of its inbox -- 1G byte, huge by the standards at that time -- so that users wouldn't have to bother deleting messages if they didn't want to.

Google didn't deliver POP3 support for Gmail until November 2004, and didn't offer IMAP support until late last month. POP3 and IMAP are protocols that let users download e-mail messages from servers to desktop PC software.

There doesn't seem to be a pattern to the reports of lost Gmail messages, as the problem has hit users with a variety of PCs, operating systems and browsers, according to interviews and discussion forum messages.

For example, Sessum uses a Mac computer and the Firefox browser, and doesn't synchronize her Gmail account with a desktop e-mail software. Meanwhile, Johnson accesses Gmail from a Windows Vista PC and downloads the messages to his computer, although he keeps copies of them on the Google servers.

Sessum, echoing other users, is hoping Google will look deeper into this problem of disappearing e-mail messages. Its users deserve a better explanation, she said.

"Google's back-end support function is MIA. You can't find a number to call. You have to tap our personal network of friends to find a name and a way in through the back door, do a dance and rub a stone for good luck, and hope that someone will help," she said.

It's also in Google's best interest to beef up this support part of its business, because even users who don't pay Google for services or software contribute significantly to the company's success, she said.

"Google makes it easier for us to collaborate, work, and publish. We provide the content, the searches, the clicks, and the destinations for those clicks. It's a win-win. Until you lose something important -- like all your data," she said.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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