Wandering Thoughts archives

2010-05-30

The end of university-provided email is probably nigh

One of the things that has happened around the university lately has been a review of our campus-wide student email offering. You can probably guess the result; pretty much everyone involved (especially the students) was very firmly in favour of moving to GMail or some competitor, provided that various side issues could be adequately dealt with.

(Yes, some of these side issues are not trivial. But they are apparently significantly smaller than they used to be, and addressable.)

There's a part of me that thinks this is sad; what has life come to when the university can't offer an attractive and competitive email service to its students? But that's the wrong view, because what's happening is not that the university is being cheap but that email has become a big business. Google, Microsoft Hotmail, and others are pouring far more resources into developing excellent email environments than pretty much any university can afford to spend.

And fundamentally, we should expect Google, Microsoft and so on to be better at software development than the university is (if they are not, something horrible is wrong with the world). It is their business, after all, and they work quite hard to make their business work as well as possible. Including by attracting good programmers, which are far more likely to go to Google than to accept a job hanging around the university.

In short: that the university could provide a competitive email service in the past was just an artifact of the fact that no one was trying very hard to offer a good email service. That's changed, and I can't be too sad about the fact that students are probably going to get a better service out of the result.

(One can argue whether or not students should care about the things that they will be giving up with third party cloud-based email, but in practice they don't seem to care. And the university is not really in a position to forcefully protect them from these potential problems, not unless we want to get really draconian and unpopular (and spend a bunch of money).)

Sidebar: why has this situation changed?

One might ask what's changed to cause people like Google to offer a good email service. I think that a big part of the reason is that web-based email clients got good, and in fact often better than desktop MUAs.

When a user's MUA is their interface to email no matter who provides it, the playing field is relatively level for service providers and their programming resources can only do so much to make them more attractive. Web-based email changes this, because suddenly you can spend programming effort on client improvements that only benefit you. Thus, how much development resources you can throw at your service suddenly matters a lot.

(You can argue about spam filtering, but many webmail providers were historically not very good at it and one can outsource that to a vendor and get quite good results.)

tech/UniversityEmailEnd written at 20:41:11; Add Comment


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