The campus where I work is thinking of outsourcing student email. This in itself could be a good thing- the student email, as it it exists, sucks. Most students that we work with in the Center don’t use it. The majority use a free webmail service, and of those, most use Gmail. Our students are not representative of the student body at large, though- they tend to have a good amount of technical skills. Yesterday and today I sat in on presentations given by Microsoft and Google on the services they can bring to campus. I have a lot to say about the presentations themselves, which I will talk about some other time (either here or on os-agnostic depending on how ranty I am feeling) but right now I just want to talk about the products Google and Microsoft offered and some thoughts on outsourcing email.
I will say that I am not a typical student (I’m not a student of UNL at all) – I use Linux at home, I try new applications on a very regular basis, I am committed to open source and open standards. I have talked to several students, though, and I am a student myself, and currently have the joy of having to use web based Outlook for my student email through Missouri-Columbia.
The first thing that immediately came to mind after I watched both presentations was: Google looks easy, Microsoft looks hard. I wish I had attended the tech meetings for the two companies, maybe then I could get a better idea of how easy or hard integration would be. Just as far as usability goes, though, Microsoft Live looks complex, has lots of options, and generally suffers from the same kind of feature bloat we have come to expect from Microsoft products. This could be a good thing, if you are a long time Microsoft user. You already know where things are and what features to look for. But if you are not a Microsoft user, this can be very annoying. Google, on the other hand, looked clean with a few well chosen features.
Both services offer POP/IMAP email access- so if you don’t want to use the web email interface, you don’t have to. That said, I can’t ignore my preference for Gmail. The email threading feature alone has made the switch to Gmail absolutely worth it. The Microsoft interface is very nice looking, but looked slow and clunky and, of course, the “premium” version only works with Internet Explorer. If you use any other browser, you get a stripped down “lite” version. It is true that Gmail, too, has a stripped down HTML version, but I can get to both Gmail versions from most of my browsers.
Both services offer 24×7 tech support. Both services offer no advertising to current students. It was my understanding that alumni get advertising. Google mentioned faculty and staff frequently, and it was clear that they would love to take over all the campus’s email. Microsoft spoke a lot about integrating with our existing faculty and staff email and calendaring service (Lotus Notes), although he did make a couple of overtures to the fact that he’d love to switch us to Outlook. The Microsoft guy, of course, talked a lot about exchange and how standard it is and how well it works with existing systems.
In fact, the main thing Microsoft has going for it at this point is that it can integrate rather well with existing email applications. Microsoft email can tap into the existing global address books and provide student address books to the traditional email. From a tech point, this could be a deal breaker, I’m not sure. I think most students won’t have a problem with quickly looking for a faculty member’s email address on www.unl.edu, but faculty members are quite used to being able to access student email addresses from inside the email client.
Google, on the other hand, has collaborative features going for it. Microsoft offers collaboration via Microsoft Office Live – which requires students use Microsoft Office if they want to edit online documents. According to the Microsoft guy, Office Live documents are versioned every 12 hours or when you tell them to, rather than every time you make an edit like in Google Docs. The sharing features are just clunky in Office Live, especially compared to Google Docs’ simple interface. Google just wins in the matter of collaboration, hands down. Teachers should never have to tell students to go out and by Word to effectively collaborate.
Google talked a lot about outsourcing IT, while Microsoft talked about integrating IT into existing structures. I got the impression that the Microsoft way might mean more job security for IT employees, which is probably not accidental: IT’s perceptions of a product play heavily into these decisions, and if they say no a project is out. Google said IT people would be freed to work on more innovative technology uses, which sounds good in theory.
One thing that definitely left an impression on me (and this is where my biases come into play) is that the Google guy talked a lot about open standards and working across platforms – he always said Mac, PC and Linux. Most people just pretend no one uses Linux. Microsoft, on the other hand, treated non-Microsoft users as second class and almost non-existent. At one point, someone asked what the Microsoft solution would be like for Linux users, and the Microsoft presenter said (not quoting because I don’t have an exact quote) well, Linux users are mostly desktop client email users anyways, and they can still access the lite version of the web mail, which will probably be fine for them. He then went on to generalize about Mac users and how they need a very simple user experience, because they aren’t very technical. I found this funny since most of the more techie people I know use macs, but I digress. Another person asked if the Microsoft Office Live collaboration features would work with the Mac version of Office, and the presenter didn’t know.
OK, now that have that out of my system…
One thing I did like about Microsoft’s presentation is that the presenter said that some schools have chosen to use both Google and Microsoft systems. Google didn’t mention this.
A few other small differences
- Lets you brand with the university icon.
- Provides a start page (iGoogle, pretty much).
- Is working with open source course management systems like Sakai and Moodle
- Will let pretty much anyone associated with the university get a branded email, including parents of students, etc., though only current students and staff will get ad free interfaces.
- Also talked about a service called “Skydrive” – basically an online thumbdrive. 1 gig for now, more later.
- Seemed to think everyone uses MSN messenger. (?)
- Did live demo of products, which Google didn’t do.
- IT has more control- can go in and trace emails, see if one was sent, etc. Not sure if they can do this with Google- but would they want to?
- Microsoft’s calendar will support iCal format.
What I want
I’m still not 100% sure on the idea of student email outsourcing, but from a pricing standpoint, it makes so much sense that it is probably inevitable. I do love the Google suite of products, and I really like that they play a little nicer with different OS’s, so I hope they either choose Google or leave the choice up to the students. I have a hunch most students will choose Google, but maybe not- in any case, it should be the student’s choice. In my ideal world, the student would be able to get a free for life POP/IMAP address that could be used with any email program and was not tied to an outside service, but I suppose I’m just dreaming on that front, huh?