Colleges Outsource E-mail to Big Players
Corrected on 8/24/07: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported which universities were on Microsoft's Windows Live.
Maintaining internal E-mail systems has long been the bane of the university information-technology director. Servers are unwieldy and unreliable, and in the past several years, the number of student complaints ("It's all junk," says one) has grown exponentially as forward-moving providers like YahooMail, Hotmail, and Gmail have increased expectations of what E-mail should offer.
The solution for a number of colleges has been to wave the white flag and outsource E-mail hosting to the experts.
Microsoft, which owns Hotmail, and Google (Gmail) are the biggest players in the educational E-mail hosting market. Along with the neat-o peripheral gizmos like messaging, calendars, and collaboration tools, the outsourced systems are more stable, have better spam filters, and provide much more storage space than the typical university's in-house system. At the University of Pennsylvania, its old E-mail service gave students 60 megabytes of storage, just 3 percent of the 2 gigabytes Windows Live now provides.
Eliminating another source of revenue, the two tech giants stripped their respective services of advertising in an effort to accommodate educators' concerns. Microsoft breaks even on the venture (it does run ads on non-E-mail services like instant messaging), while Google, which makes almost all its money through advertising, runs at a loss.
But what money they don't make at the moment will—the companies hope—pay great dividends in the form of lifelong users in the future, says Google's Jeff Kelter. As quickly as they shuffle out of commencement, graduates see their E-mail transition to the traditional ad-based formats of Gmail and Hotmail. And unlike before, when universities couldn't afford to host thousands of alumni, Google and Microsoft can maintain every account indefinitely, retaining customers as long as customers still want them.
Not all schools are ready to outsource their tech dirty work, with privacy and security topping the list of concerns. Critics worry that by handing over the responsibility of E-mail hosting, colleges also relinquish the freedom to keep the information safe in the best way they see fit. Even in the corporate world, there is great skepticism of consumer technologies like Google Apps.
Yet most university IT managers agree that outsiders would do a better job protecting individual E-mail from viruses and spam than their own small operations, and strong word-of-mouth praise has done wonders to supplement the almost nonexistent marketing budgets for these Microsoft and Google projects.
"Some people didn't like the idea of outsourcing to a major corporation," says Alex Dybsky, a senior at Northwestern University, which has partnered with Google, "but looking at how much better of a product it is, people just succumb. It's that good."
The price tag—or lack of one—isn't a bad sales pitch either. If Penn and Northwestern are any example, schools can save around $1 million over the course of several years by abandoning their E-mail systems.
Ramin Sedehi, the vice dean for finance and administration at Penn, says 30 percent of Penn's students already forward their messages to outside clients, and he predicts universities will eventually be out of the E-mail hosting business altogether.
Ball State University and the Indiana University Alumni Association are now on Windows Live, and Arizona State University switched to Google Apps in October 2006, already converting at least 40,000 of its 65,000 students to the new system. Penn State University and California Polytechnic State University, to name two, have been in talks, while other schools are watching and waiting.
If you do go to campuses where "unreliable," "awful," and just plain "terrible" are words often used in close proximity to "university webmail," those like Dybsky will tell you that waiting may not be the best strategy for schools or students. "If you're not going to embrace it," he says, "you'll get left behind."