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U. Penn Looks to Gmail, Live Mail

I find it fascinating the transformation the e-mail protocol has taken. Some Internet services, like the world wide web, haven’t changed in a decade. Others, like gopher, have basically died. Still others—I’m looking at you, telnet—have become admin-only protocols. But e-mail is undergoing an overhaul. For a long while, people just logged onto a Post Office Protocol server, downloaded the newest messages to their hard drive, and were done with it. The server forgot about those messages downloaded. People use e-mail differently, now, and server-side e-mail applications are preferred. That is when one computer, a server, contains both your e-mail and the application used to view and write e-mails, and you access that information by typing in a web address, such as or So your e-mail, contact list, your folders and filters and everything else is all in some locked data center in the middle of the country.

And this is the method that’s winning. Centralization and verticalization in e-mail makes sense. The former, because e-mail servers are just a massive pain to run well. Large companies use customized solutions like Lotus Notes, which aren’t practical for a large general user base. But most people running e-mail servers don’t enjoy doing so because of the resources they require. Economies of scale have allowed a few e-mail systems to stand out as reliable and fast: AOL, Google, and Microsoft, among others. And vertical solutions are what consumers are demanding: They’d like not to worry about their e-mails taking up their own hard drive space, and moreover they’d like to be able to access their e-mail from other people’s computers. So marrying server and end-user application has been a successful equation.

The University of Pennsylvania, which previously ran the atrocious open-source Horde program over an IMAP server, is abandoning not only its software, Horde, but is abandoning the whole idea of running e-mail servers. Now either Google or Microsoft is going to gift a university-wide e-mail solution to Penn. Google’s solution would be a customized version of the glorious Gmail server/application. Google already offers this customized solution to companies. (I’ve been testing out customized Gmail on my domain, actually. Works well.) And Microsoft’s solution would be a deployment of its still-in-beta Live Mail server/application. Live Mail looks just wonderful, like a web-based version of Outlook. It remains to be seen whether Live Mail will be web-standards compliant, and if it will adopt Google’s innovation of grouping messages by subject. If it does both, it will be a killer app, I think.

Why is Penn throwing its e-mail servers into the abyss? Because its customers have voted:

“We are negotiating for something beyond the standard package,” said Ira Winston, the School of Arts and Sciences information technology chief, in an e-mail. […]

Already, 40 percent of SAS students are forwarding their e-mails to an outside address, up from 30 percent from last year, Winston said.

Many people at Dartmouth forward their e-mail, too, and it is important to recognize that analyzing use of the forwarding feature systematically underreports dissatisfaction with schools’ e-mail systems, because many students use an off-site e-mail address for almost all communications, and maintain their school address for official communications, communications with professors, et cetera.


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