College stands behind e-mail pick

by Sam Rauschenfels | 9/30/10 10:00pm

Despite recent student outcry against the planned replacement of BlitzMail with Microsoft Online Services, administrators maintain that the new platform is best suited to the College's needs, according to Vice President of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer Ellen Waite-Franzen. The system which is still under development will soon be evaluated by advisory committees consisting of faculty, staff and students, she said.

Advisory groups consisting of students, faculty and staff will be selected to monitor progress, provide feedback and address potential problems with Microsoft Online Services, Waite-Franzen said. Approximately 20 students will be involved in these committees and may be among some of the first users of the Microsoft platform on campus.

The decision to switch to Microsoft as opposed to Google was made after a study group met during the Spring and Summer terms to determine "the best overall solution for the entire campus," according to group member and Dean of Libraries Jeff Horrell.

When officials began the search for an improved e-mail system, they found the improvement of BlitzMail unrealistic because of the programming complexity that would be necessary to make BlitzMail competitive with and as powerful as products from Microsoft and Google, she said.

"If it was that easy, there would be a lot of other competitors, and a lot of other schools would have already done that," Waite-Franzen said. "MIT would have done it by now. It's not as easy as people think it is."

The majority of the group suggested that the College adopt Google Apps for Education for students, faculty and staff within the undergraduate College and Thayer School of Engineering, and Microsoft Online Services for Dartmouth Medical School, according to the Communication and Collaboration Tools Study Group Report executive summary released this summer. The minority decision recommended that the Microsoft platform be employed by the entire campus, the report said.

Ultimately, College officials elected to uphold the minority decision, Waite-Franzen said. Four staff members were sent to Redmond, Wash., for a four-day intensive training program that covered technical and user aspects of the product.

"I think it's a reasonable outcome, considering the many different factors that are at play here," computer science professor and study group chair David Kotz said.

The switch to Microsoft will provide users with features that would not be cost-effective if paired with the current BlitzMail system, she said. The new system offers 10 gigabytes of e-mail storage space, compared to BlitzMail's 500 megabytes.

The new platform will also preserve e-mail accessibility, since it is compatible with smartphones like BlackBerrys and iPhones, according to Waite-Franzen, who herself uses an iPhone synced with existing Microsoft products on campus. This flexibility is possible because most mobile e-mail platforms are developed first and foremost for use with Microsoft, she said.

Terminals for checking e-mail will also remain in use throughout campus, she said.

The College's support for the minority option was partly a result of existing Microsoft installations in various parts of the College, Waite-Franzen said. College administrators currently operate on a Microsoft system, as do employees at the Tuck School of Business and the Norris Cotton Cancer Center within Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

"If only the [College] president and senior administration had been on Microsoft, that would have been just a small pool of people, but we're talking about a much larger pool of people," Waite-Franzen said.

Converting the entire campus to Microsoft which should occur for most students by Fall term 2011 will ensure that all departments and sectors can interact freely, she said.

"I think that as Dartmouth thinks more about one Dartmouth,' where there's more interaction between our professional schools and arts and sciences, there's going to be more communication and collaboration that goes across the schools," Waite-Franzen said.

In addition to e-mail, the Microsoft platform will provide collaboration tools like document libraries, discussion lists, a shared calendar and task lists within a "SharePoint Online" application, according to the Computing Services' website. The "Office Communicator" client will give users instant messaging and voice and video chat capabilities, while "Office LiveMeeting" will allow users to hold online, real-time meetings across campus.

Because these applications operate online, users can utilize them from any web browser on any computer platform, according to the site.

Within the new e-mail system, students will be able to register "aliases," the Microsoft counterpart to BlitzMail nicknames, Waite-Franzen said. It is also expected to reduce the number of misdirected e-mails, as partial names will no longer be allowed in the addressee field, she said.

No decision has been made pertaining to a replacement for BlitzMail's bulletin feature, she said.