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Mark Nelson

Dr. Dobb's Bloggers

Google Is a Scary Lifeline

December 16, 2010

These days I've turned over a lot of my life to Google - they have my email, a lot of my documents, and my primary phone number.

This is all great while it works, because in general it's free, and the uptime is very reliable.

But if you are non-paying customer, when things break, you can find yourself in a world of trouble.

I use my Google Voice number as my primary phone number, and it rings my mobile, work, and home numbers. That's a nice feature. In addition, I use it to receive texts, because I can send and receive them from both my Google Voice web page and my phone.

This morning I noticed that my texting traffic had strangely disappeared. A little checking showed that I could still send texts from my Google account, but it wasn't receiving any. My cell phone could still send and receive properly, but nobody uses that number.

Generally my first debugging step on something like this is to search Twitter to see if this is a big problem. Maybe Google broke SMS for everyone, or some sizable portion of the population.

No such luck.

Now I found myself in free service hell. Something I depend on rather heavily stopped working, and I basically had no avenue for support.

As an unpaid Google Voice user, my only hope was to post a message on the appropriate forum. I wrote up a problem report, doing my best to provide as much detail as I could, but with not too much hope. If you browse through the forums you'll see that the resolution rate for people's problems is depressingly low.

As it happens, my story has a happy ending. Although I hadn't done anything to my Google Voice settings, I remembered that this morning when I logged into gmail, Google asked if perhaps I would like to set up SMS password recovery for my account. Seemed like a good idea, so I gave them my Google voice number. I didn't bother to try a test run - I have this feature set up on other accounts and it is drop dead simple.

But as it turns out, somewhere in the bowels of the Googleplex, adding that field to my account database broke some piece of code in Google Voice's SMS reception code. When I changed the setting to point to my cell phone number, I instantly regained the ability to receive SMS messages on my Google Voice number. I have to believe this is a simple bug - I can't think of any reason that using a Google Voice number for SMS password recovery should break it.

Of course, it appears that all the messages that were sent during my downtime were discarded, but I think I can recover from a few hours of SMS silence. If I hadn't been fortunate enough to connect the dots and ferret out a fairly serious bug, there is no telling how long I would have waited to see a fix.

I might have even demanded a full refund.

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