If You Advertise An 'Unlimited' Email Service, It Had Better Be Actually Unlimited

from the truth-in-advertising dept

A year ago we praised Yahoo! for taking the bold step of offering its email customers unlimited storage space. It was a great concept, but Lee Gomes at the Wall Street Journal recently discovered that we should all start putting scare quotes around "unlimited." It seems that if you leave too many messages in your Yahoo! Mail inbox, you start running into problems. Gomes got a mysterious error message, followed by several years worth of email disappearing. Yahoo! says it can get the messages back in a few hours (presumably restoring them from backup tapes). But this is still pretty embarrassing for Yahoo!, and it's unfortunately all too common in the tech world. Companies love to advertise unlimited service when their systems aren't actually set up for "unlimited" usage. Yahoo! shouldn't advertise an unlimited service unless it's actually unlimited, and somebody should have given some thought to what happens when people store a ton of messages in their inbox. Maybe there's something to be said for Google and Microsoft's approach: instead of claiming that your service is unlimited, pick limits that are high enough (2 GB in Microsoft's case, 6 and constantly growing in Google's) that most users will never have to worry about them, but still give the IT guys a specific number to aim for.



Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Magnus, Mar 24th, 2008 @ 10:14pm

    "unlimited"

    Kind of like Etisalat's "unlimited' 3G dataplan (usable with iPhones, for example) which is really only max 10GB per month.

     

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  2.  
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    Brad Werth, Mar 24th, 2008 @ 10:25pm

    Yahoo mail

    This happened to me with a Yahoo account. Yahoo actually assured me that they could not restore the missing emails. This really sucked, as I had foolishly been using the email to archive some important information. Of course I wasn't going to use Yahoo again. I didn't want to use my ISPs email, as it is a real pain switching emails when switching ISPs. I decided to switch to an actual host (one that got good reviews at the time, Startlogic) and began using their email. Everything was going great until about two weeks ago, when Startlogic went and go themselves added to every spam blacklist on the planet. Many ISPs will block you from running your own email server. Moral of the story? I guess email is just gonna suck from time to time...

     

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  3.  
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    Jake, Mar 24th, 2008 @ 10:53pm

    I have limited sympathy for Gomes here; occasional hardware failure is a fact of life, as is new features throwing up the occasional weird bug. If all 55,000 emails are important enough that he'll need to refer back to them at all, which I find a bit unlikely, he ought to be making his own backup copies rather whining about the fact that him being too lazy to organise his email archive into sub-folders threw a wrench in the works.

    Besides, is it really that hard to sift through your inbox every so often and delete anything you won't need to refer back to?

     

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  4.  
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    linuxamp, Mar 24th, 2008 @ 11:10pm

    Jake, it all depends on their terms of service. If they don't explicitly state limitations of liability then they are responsible for his data loss. As for the mis-representation of the word "unlimited" that's also a matter of the fine print somewhere in their license. If the big headline print was legally binding we'd all be rich since battery lives, usable drive space, available bandwidth etc. are never as great as advertised.

     

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  5.  
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    Tamara, Mar 24th, 2008 @ 11:51pm

    It's not just e-mail

    That is also a common tactic used by ISPs in Australia. It started off with just 1 (The country's biggest - Telstra) offering "Unlimited" download, when unlimited meant 3GB with high excess download charges. But they also offered an "Unlimited Pro" with a slightly higher included download limit. Other ISPs followed but all of those shaped the excess data rather than charge extra for it.

     

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  6.  
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    John Kahler, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 1:08am

    it's not a new problem

    I hit the limit a while ago - right after they "gave" all that space though I was well below the limit - and actually diagnosed the solution, though tech support really kinda didn't acknowledge it and haven't fixed it. Seems the limit in the "In" box is at 65,536 messages, which is 2 to the 16th - hex - and as long as you keep the message count in your main folder below that there's no problem (which means deleting excess messages, using subfolders, etc.). Tech support said they couldn't "restore" the messages too, but they're not lost, they just can't be indexed, but they reappear once you remove enough files, by delete or moving to folders, from the main directory. Note that I continue to use that Yahoo account - get Techdirt there daily, for instance, and all my "lost" messages are again found. I've gotten better at organizing and housekeeping so rarely have all my messages "disappear" any more.

    Why no fix? I suspect it would mean rewriting the whole database/index behind the system. Who could imagine that anyone would have anything near 65,536 messages? Who could imagine that a personal computer would need more than 10 meg of storage - on something called a hard drive - and 64K of memory???? Now, WHY I have that many messages in my in box is a totally different question...

    - John

     

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  7.  
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    PaulT (profile), Mar 25th, 2008 @ 3:19am

    They're not lying though...

    In most of these cases, they advertise unlimited but then confess that there is actually some kind of limit. That kind of this is unacceptable and deserves to be exposed.

    However, at least Yahoo are being honest here. They're not placing any limits on the service, it's just that they've had a few technical hiccups while running it. They're not trying to penalise Gomes for using the service in this way and they should be able to restore emails for him so nothing is ultimately lost.

    To me, this is a non-issue. There's nobody trying to mislead anyone, it's just a tech issue that Yahoo should be able to resolve at some point. As Gomes says "Turns out Yahoo isn’t really prepared for users doing what we do–namely keeping all their mail in a single inbox–as opposed to moving them into sub-folders.".

    If Yahoo are aware of the issue, it can be fixed. In the meantime, he's already noted his own workaround for the problem - make a few subfolders (maybe one for each month of year rather than content), and spend 20 minutes moving messages out of the inbox.

     

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  8.  
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    TX CHL Instructor (profile), Mar 25th, 2008 @ 3:22am

    I keep a local backup...

    I use gmail, which, while not "unlimited", has a pretty hefty chunk of storage, and seems to be growing faster than my usage. It's convenient, and it's nice to be able to access my mail from places other than home.

    But once a week or so, I download all my gmail to my home system with Thunderbird (free, open-source news/mail reader). Once a year, my emails get archived to CD. That way, I will still have my back emails even if Google decided for some reason to terminate gmail, or maybe an earthquake or tornado took out one of their datacenters, etc.

    I keep all my non-spam email forever. I occasionally retrieve emails sent to me more than 5 years ago.

     

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  9.  
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    Jake, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 4:38am

    Granted, Linuxamp. Nevertheless, it sounds like Yahoo! did everything reasonable to resolve the issue when they found out about the bug, and I really feel for the tech-support guy who had to deal with Gomes if he took the same tone as that column.
    And while we're on the subject, using the WSJ's name in connection to an issue with an email he owns as a private individual -which is strongly implied in the column- was grossly unprofessional. 'Mainstream media prerogatives' my good right boot!

    Sorry if I'm not being very objective here, but the man's attitude just infuriated me; you'd think someone in his line of work would have figured out by now that shit happens.

     

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  10.  
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    Steve Johnson, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 4:39am

    Beyond unlimited

    The real challenge is that no one who develops these services has any idea the crazy things that people will do when it hits the market. Who at Apple thought that people would have 160G of music! Who at Google thought that people would use gmail as an offsite for their data (need a backup, just email it to yourself)? So when a company quite innocently advertises "unlimited," they are invariably shocked at how the service will be pushed to the limit by a tiny minority.

     

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  11.  
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    Killer_Tofu (profile), Mar 25th, 2008 @ 5:19am

    Google's Limit

    I always liked the picture that represented google's mail limit goal.
    Infinite +1

    Was going to find a picture and link to it, but don't have enough time to find it. Sorry.

     

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  12.  
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    Chronno S. Trigger, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 5:20am

    Re: They're not lying though...

    From the sounds of the article someone is trying to mislead us. Gomes. He's acting like this is an undocumented limitation when it's just a technical glitch.

    "Like many other cubicle dwellers saddled with slow-poke corporate Microsoft Outlook email, we regularly forward our regular work mail to an outside account"

    I don't think I have ever heard of anyone doing that and if they did that's grounds for firing around here and probably a lot of ether places as well. I hope his boss doesn't read the article he wrote.

     

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  13.  
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    ehrichweiss, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 5:36am

    you actually TRUST Yahoo!?!?!?

    .....With your email!??! HAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! I have a yahoo so I can use their IM and that's it. Their spam protection is non-existent, their customer service is slow beyond belief and now I'm supposed to be surprised by this?? There's a reason I run my own (legit) mailserver: at least if there's a problem, I'm the only person I can blame.

     

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  14.  
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    Rekrul, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 6:29am

    This happened to me with a Yahoo account. Yahoo actually assured me that they could not restore the missing emails. This really sucked, as I had foolishly been using the email to archive some important information.


    Which perfectly illustrates the dangers of relying on some online company to store your data. If you want to use such services as a backup, or to allow access to the data from any computer, that's fine, but for anything important, you should always make sure to save a local copy.

     

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  15.  
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    Chuck, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 7:06am

    This is exactly why your email should be on your own computer, backed up, not on someone's web site. Web mail is convenient when you are traveling, and it's great for disposable addresses or light users, but it's NOT acceptable as a primary email solution for people who need to keep important email archived. If you insist on using Yahoo or GMail as a primary email address, then at least get Thunderbird or Outlook at home and use it to retrieve those messages and store them yourself.

     

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  16.  
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    Heywood, Mar 25th, 2008 @ 7:30am

    Re: Google's Limit

    Hey, thanks for nothing.

     

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  17.  
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    DHARMA99, Oct 30th, 2011 @ 11:48pm

    FRAUDULENT UNLIMITED PROVIDERS

    ABSOLUTELY A FACT.
    MORE TRAGIC IS PAYING A LARGE SUM OF MONEY TO POBOX.COM FOR "UNLIMITED" EMAIL SERVICE ONLY TO FIND OUT THAT WHEN YOU DO SEND FREQUENT [NO NOT HIGH VOLUME BUT FREQUENT] EMAIL THEY SUDDENLY SHUT DOWN YOUR SMTP SO YOU CAN NOT SEND ANY MESSAGES WITH A VAGUE NOTICE THAT SOMEONE, THEY CANT SAY WHO WHEN AND WHERE..., HAS COMPLAINED YOU ARE "SPAMMING"
    NEVER MIND YOU DON'T BUT THAT BULLS...T SURE STOPS YOU FROM USING "BANDWITH" AND LO AND BEHOLD YOUR POP3 IS CUTOFF TOO AS WELL AS YOUR WEB SERVICE.
    EXPLANATION: WE WILL GET BACK TO YOU....
    STILL WAITING!!!!
    BY THE WAY DONT SEND ME ANY EMAIL TO THIS EMAIL ADDRESS, I WONT GET IT.
    I AM IN THE PROCESS OF TAKING MY BUSINESS ELSWHERE.
    I HAVE TO GIVE IT TO THE SWINDLERS AT POBOX.COM, PROVIDERS NORMALLY BULLS...T YOU WITH A SUPPOSED ERROR MESSAGE AND DISAPPEARING EMAIL BUT AT POBOX.COM THEY TAKE IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL....JUST ACCUSE THE PESKY USING CUSTOMER WITH A BULLSH...T CHARGE OF SPAMMING , CUT HIM OFF, GET RID OF THE EMAIL AND JUST APOLOGIZE LATER AND HOPE THE SUCKER STAYS WITH YOUR COMPANY. INNOVATIVE TO SAY THE LEAST

     

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  18.  
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    Cary, Apr 22nd, 2013 @ 2:16pm

    CLASS ACTION LAWSUIT for false advertisement and Wiping out our Data!

    With so many people experiencing problems, I'm suprised no one has sued them about their false advertisement and the damage done by deleting important data from their user's email accounts. A class action lawsuit would probably be an easy win on this...

    I reported this problem to both Yahoo and ATT (I have an att.com account but att partners with yahoo to run att email services on yahoo servers) and both ATT and Yahoo STILL claim that we're suppose to have unlimited data storage.

    What's worse, when I asked them fix it via their ridiculous help desk, nothing has been done (which is typical of them no matter how big or small the issue is.) ATT and Yahoo have the worst service ever!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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