Legions of home workers and anxious GCSE pupils were hit by a Gmail meltdown on Thursday, stoking fears that the coronavirus boom in remote business has left Britain dangerously reliant on a handful of tech companies.
Google’s G Suite - which includes the Gmail email service as well as Google Drive, Google Chat, Google Docs, and Google Meet - was plagued with issues from around 6am in what experts said was its worst ever outage.
The tech titan said it had restored services to users by 12.10pm. But in the meantime the failure wreaked havoc on employees trying to do their jobs remotely, as well as nervous children forced to wait for their GCSE results.
Data from tracker site DownDetector showed the thousands of outages were concentrated in the UK, Greece, Spain, Germany, France, Japan, and Malaysia. Those affected were unable to log on, upload files or send emails.
Derek McAuley, professor of digital economy at the University of Nottingham, said the episode highlights how dependent the country has become on a small number of tech businesses which wield enormous power.
He said: “The issue is where everyone becomes dependent (on a single service), a whole sector can grind to a halt.
“But this doesn’t happen when you have a more competitive and partitioned marketplace.”
Gmail is the world's biggest email service, boasting around 1.8 billion users worldwide.
Its G Suite services have surged in popularity during lockdown with thousands of businesses signing up as employees increasingly work from home.
The company is likely to play an increasingly vital role in business life as employees abandon the traditional nine-to-five. With normal face to face communication in the office impossible, blackouts pose an ever grater risk.
The cause of the outage is unclear, but it was speculated that glitches in updates to the firm's cloud service may have been to blame. It also coincided with the first day back at school for millions of US children, many of whom use Google products to learn remotely.
Technicians from the company are expected to reveal full details of what went wrong in coming days.
There is no suggestion problems were caused by a hack, but consultants said the failure nonetheless highlighted the risks if attackers are able to take down key email systems.
Jake Moore, a cybersecurity specialist at IT firm Eset, said there had been concerns about a Google failure for many years.
He said: “As we all learn from mistakes, it does elevate a concern as to why this outage was not able to withstand such a force to knock it over and affect so many end users,” he said.
Tim Callan, senior fellow at web security firm Sectigo, added: “The extreme concentration of power in a small number of technology companies may be of concern to British consumers, businesses, and government in several ways."
Several experts said the failure was the largest disruption of Google’s services in the 16 years since Gmail started.
Problems began just hours before students were due to receive their GCSE results on Thursday morning following months of waiting, forcing schools to apologise when the grades were not sent on time.
Worried parents took to Twitter to complain that the glitch had left their "very nervous" children in the lurch and "going crazy waiting" for up to 90 minutes.
The delay follows what had already been a stressful period for students relying on predicted grades after exams were cancelled due to lockdown.
In a message to students on Twitter, Rae Potter, the headteacher of the Sarah Bonnell School in east London,said: "We have had it all this year haven't we? Now global issues with a Google outage is hindering communication with GCSE results."
Anthony Wilson, the headteacher of the Lister School in east London, told pupils: "As if you haven't had enough to put up with this year, Gmail's global fail at 0630 has delayed us sending out your results."
Google apologised for the inconvenience and thanked users for their patience.
It said: "System reliability is a top priority at Google. We are making continuous improvements to make our systems better."
The outage also hit many small businesses that rely on G Suite to carry out essential services.
Alina Cincan, managing director at London-based translating firm Inbox Translation, said: “Some of my emails were not sent, the drafts were not saved either so I had to rewrite everything once I realised there was an issue.
“I had an urgent project to deliver so I had to contact the client to find alternative solutions. In this case, we opted to send the files on a different platform as they were not of confidential nature – but urgent as they were medical translations related to Covid-19.”
Google’s paid-for G Suite offering is in direct competition with rival Microsoft’s 365 service and has built momentum during lockdown.
G Suite reached over 6 million paying customers in March, up from 5 million a year earlier.