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Google’s email client has changed one life. Should Duke ditch its webmail makeovers and join the revolution? ILLUSTRATION BY TAYLOR JARDNO


y parents used to scoff at the amount of time I spent staring at a screen and pecking at a keyboard. They still do. “Look, he’s on a date with his girlfriend!” Dad says when he feels especially witty or justified enough to equate my time online to a lack of a significant other. Well, Pop, you’ll be glad to know that I’m in the healthiest relationship of my life. My crush is fast and easy to use. She has plenty of capacity for storage, even for my most prodigious needs. She responds to orders, acquiesces to my every demand and never loses anything. She’s a web-hosted, Ajax-based, beta version of a free e-mail service. She goes by Gmail. Her last 10


name may soon be Cohen. Only problem? Gmail is a modern Marilyn Monroe: everyone wants a piece of her. Naturally, we’re in a polygamous relationship, if that’s what you can call Gmail’s fooling around with millions of others while I wait, as always, unflinchingly faithful . Except, that is, for a dastardly month-long period in August 2006. College is a time for trying new things, I had told Gmail before trading her for the uncertainty of freshman year. I would learn Arabic and Chinese, throw a Frisbee on the greenest quad I could find, chant Handel in the Chapel. Anything and everything was possible without the burden of a relationship, monogamous or not, but for the

AN ESSAY BY BEN COHEN Google. (Outsourcing in conjunction with computerized beaus? Yikes.) Relieving OIT from its e-mail duties seemed to be both the only move and the most logical step for the school whose mission statement ends with a commitment to “maintain a place of real leadership in all that we do.” Making Gmail (or Dmail!) our primary e-mail was an opportunity for Duke to exhibit progressive thinking and become a paragon of technological compliance. Google is the perfect recipient of our business, not just for Gmail, but because of its Apps for Education deal which includes Gmail, Google Documents and Google Calendar. Together, it is a collaborative package that forebodes the future of institutional curricula. And here’s the kicker: first time since initially embrac- it’s all free! I asked Jeff Keltner, ing Gmail, I was lost, scared and the business development manvulnerable. ager for Google Apps for EducaThen I saw her. Everyone tion, about the program’s deficalled her Webciencies. “There mail, a name are no downfull of norsides,” he said. MY CRUSH IS FAST malcy. She was “That’s the AND EASY TO USE. ugly; that’s the whole thing.” SHE RESPONDS first thing I noFor better ticed, the first or worse, Duke TO ORDERS, thing anyone wouldn’t be ACQUIESCES TO noticed. Not the guinea pig, MY EVERY DEMAND only uglier than either. NorthGmail—rewestern and AND NEVER LOSES ally, what could the University ANYTHING. SHE’S compare?—but of Southern inescapably A WEB-HOSTED, California gave ugly. MisforGoogle their AJAX-BASED, BETA tune was her esbusiness this VERSION OF A FREE sence: She was year. Arizona small where big E-MAIL SERVICE. State made its was better, slow move in 2006 when I wanted and has since fast, obtrusive where subtlety transferred the $500,000 it saved was premium. She represented to other, more pragmatic ofeverything for which I have an fices. Perhaps those schools were unaffected scorn. tempted by the massive storage I soon realized what I still space (my Gmail holds 6,422 MB believe: Duke has no match for compared to Webmail’s 390 MB Gmail (the e-mail system, not capability), or its revered spam my imaginative female friend). blocker (an e-mail with an “unThat’s why I forward my Duke known” date and X-rated subject e-mail to my Gmail account; currently sits in my Webmail that’s why I refuse to even look inbox), or its ability for mindat Webmail. less cost-cutting (I’m sure stuIt only makes sense, then, that dents would be happy to re-allot I was a fervent advocate for Duke $500K to bring Dave Matthews to outsource its e-mail service to to campus. Every other month).

I am thankful for the antispam effort, but I am more appreciative of Gmail’s other perks: filters, colors, labels, archives and a bevy of other terms that mean nothing to you but everything to me. When an e-mail from my English professor hits my inbox, it automatically is slapped with a “Spring 2008” tag and blue color for easy referencing. I skim the e-mail, tap ‘y’ on the keyboard and the message is sent to the archives, allowing for a tidy inbox. Tired of those annoying departmental dispatches that you delete quicker than the message opens? In Gmail, you can send it straight to your trashcan. For those innovations, and for so many more that you simply have to find yourself, Keltner believes Gmail’s rise to prominence was, and is, inevitable. “If I’m providing e-mail, it’s costing an arm and a leg and my students don’t like it, because something like Gmail is better,” he said. “In that world, a lot of people focus initially on the mail component and Gmail, specifically. But a lot of CIOs are really starting to look at the need for collaboration as central to the future of higher education…. It’s not their immediate need, but it’s certainly a large portion of the value.” I didn’t need Keltner to sell me, but one part about our conversation pesters me. Although I have an unrequited love for Gmail and already use too many other Google products, I wonder whether outsourcing e-mail is really a “need” for Duke. I looked around campus and a contrary answer emerged. I snuck peeks at open laptops and found that most people still use Webmail. But why? Either because it still fits the basic needs of most students, or because most students don’t know how to forward to Gmail. The statistics favor the former. Get this: only 10 to 15 percent of Duke students forward their mail to an outside host like Gmail or Yahoo!, said IT senior analyst Chris Colomb, known colloquially to some as the department’s e-mail guru. Ten

percent? I feel like I could name 600 students using Gmail over Webmail by myself. Of course, Colomb’s number is skewed because it does not include those who use Outlook, Thunderbird, Mac Mail or other desktop clients. Still, though, Colomb acknowledged the misleading circumstances. “There was this internal misperception that more people were forwarding their mail than was actually the case,” says Colomb, who does not forward his Duke e-mail. “I found that very validating. My last collegiate experience [at UNC for 15 years] was very similar, with only 10 percent…. If someone had a Google account, you’d think there’s no need for a campus service. But I’ve

fearful of Google and Microsoft Live mining students’ e-mails for advertising information, although students’ Gmail accounts do not display advertising and Google does not scour e-mails for information until after graduation, Keltner says. More than anything, Colomb is skeptical of the gratis tag, citing programs like that were once free, then charged, and now you’ve never heard of them. If Google does one day cost money—Keltner says, “It’s certainly not something we’ve been planning”—or if its still-Beta version collapses, what will Duke do with a decimated OIT staff and defunct e-mail service? “Mail is morphing into more than just mail, but collaborative

ONLY 10 TO 15 PERCENT OF DUKE STUDENTS FORWARD THEIR MAIL TO AN OUTSIDE HOST. “IF SOMEONE HAD A GOOGLE ACCOUNT, YOU’D THINK THERE’S NO NEED FOR A CAMPUS SERVICE,” COLOMB SAYS. “BUT I’VE FOUND THAT’S NOT THE CASE AT ALL.” found that’s not the case at all.” Colomb is the type of guy who casually throws out nerdisms like IMP and POP, uses emoticons in e-mails to express his pleasure from a pleasant but typical interview and is genuinely excited to discuss the pros and cons of Duke’s current technology—in other words, he isn’t remotely defensive or hostile when I profess my love for one of his competitors. He elegantly raises some counterpoints that Keltner only skimmed over: namely, that Webmail allows Duke to authenticate sent e-mails, fosters a technological community and is especially inviting to professors and staff. “Those are kinds of things that are not necessarily sexy,” he said. “But in our environment, they’re really important.” To him, Gmail isn’t the big bad wolf, even if it does have some big, bad problems. (She can’t cook, for one.) Colomb is

technology in which mail is a part,” Colomb says. “The problem for any IT organization is how we can enable that for our entire user space. What a lot of schools are doing is re-defining the problem. They say, ‘Well, we’ll just outsource the students to one of these efforts, then we’ll do the faculty and staff on a new special server to which students want to have access.’ I think that’s a crummy way to do things.” I still doubt Colomb’s argument—it’s his job, after all, to advertise his product, and self-promotion means little in the context of journalism—until he e-mails me (from either his Webmail, Thunderbird or Mac Mail, to my Gmail) the day after we talk. He includes a link to the next generation of Webmail. I’ve certainly seen more beautiful sites, but it’s not ugly. Far from it. The basic interface is just that, which will appeal to the resident

Luddites. It bears a particular resemblance to Gmail itself because of its signature Ajax code, and the Advanced interface looks native, just like Outlook. Searching is easier; composing mail is more reminiscient of Microsoft Word than an old-school DOS system; saving mail has never been easier. And in the spirit of collaboration, Webmail’s new calendar feature is just as prominent as e-mail. Those that have tested it—a small crop of students, me and the select group of friends to whom I forwarded it (sorry, Chris)—have all been impressed. I even went so far as to open three pieces of previouslyunread mail in the Ajax version, my favorite. Feeling strangely guilty for indulging my urge to cheat, I click on my Gmail bookmark and see those three messages, unread in the omniscient eyes of Gmail, bolded like a stigmata on my conscience. I couldn’t leave my beloved, not again. Keltner’s words echoed in my mind: “I know a lot of people feel much more comfortable driving than flying even though every study tells you that you’re safer in an airplane. When I have my hands on the wheel, I feel like I’m in control and I feel safer. I think there’s some of that going on, that feeling of control that many don’t like to give up.” Webmail has had a top-notch makeover, and turned out all right in the end. She still pales in comparison to Gmail—only not as dramatically. My Marilyn isn’t worth the whole damn bunch put together anymore, but she’s still the best e-mail provider on the Web. And perhaps that’s the most desirable outcome for Duke. We 10 percent-ers will stand by Gmail and extol its superiority. The Outlookers and Thunderbirders will bask in the comfort of majority. The Webmail loyalists will notice a new homepage and interface one day next fall and shrug contently before checking their e-mail. Some will fly, some will drive. All will feel safe knowing that beauty still lies in the eye of the beholder. TOWERVIEW


Gmail, Je'taime  

One reporter's obsession with Gmail.