I’m lucky enough to work in an academic environment, which means I get to work with (and for) lots of really smart people.  They ask tough questions and don’t hesitate to call BS when they get a BS answer.  This has prompted a lot of new service offerings that don’t always follow status quo.

For example, 250MB of storage space for students on the departmental server used to be status quo.  A while back, we increase that by 800%, and will continue to grow to meet the needs of our students.

Another example, a 2MB mailbox for plain text email, using a client such as pine (or elm, mail, mailx, etc.) used to be the status quo.  Now, anyone can go online and get a 5GB+ mailbox, rich text email, and much, much more for free from places like Gmail, Yahoo!, and Hotmail.  Email (let’s use a more general term like electronic collaboration) has become a commodity.  Lots of people/companies do it better than I do for cheaper than I can, so why would I bother hosting my own server?  That’s a good question!

In an academic environment, things typically change slowly (if at all).  If you want to do something new, cool, and cutting edge, there are always rules and regulations to hold you back comply with (anyone ever dealt with IRB?).  So I started the long tedious process of outsourcing email about a year ago.  Within the past couple of years, electronic collaboration has become much more than email, and lots of companies are doing it (some are even doing it right).  Even better, electronic collaboration has become a commodity, and with commodities come competition, even if the service is free!  Did you notice how your old 2MB hotmail account jumped to 250MB seemingly overnight (you know, after Gmail debuted), and then again to 5GB?  That’s commodity competition at work!

So, with all the new cool features (or if you’re providing the serivce: complexity and development time) and increased reliance (or supporting the service: customer intolerance for downtime) on electronic collaboration, why not let someone else do it?  They can, in most cases, do it better, cheaper, faster, and offer those new features that I can’t (or am not willing to) roll out on my own email server.

The next question is “Who does it best?”  Well, you have to define “best”, or rather, you have to define your requirements.  The following lists detail my hard and soft requirements for an electronic collaboration solution.

Hard Requirements

  • Email
  • Calendar
  • Contacts
  • Shared folders that contain items listed above
  • Mobile sync
  • Web browser accessible
  • Easy to use
  • OS independent
  • Offline capability

Soft Requirements

  • Document collaboration
    • Text docs
    • Spreadsheets
    • Presentations
  • LOTS of space
  • Email filters/rules
  • Chat/IM
  • Free (or close to it)

Conclusion

For my money, no one (currently) does electronic collaboration better than Google.  Google Apps for Education meets all the hard AND soft requirements.  It also provides video conferencing, fast searching, and is really, REALLY easy to use.  BUT (yeah, you knew it was coming), here’s why I can’t use them in my department:

  1. Their support is email-only
  2. I have never been able to talk to anyone other than a salesperson regarding the purchase or negotiating Terms of Service.
  3. Data can be stored anywhere in the world, which doesn’t give the lawyers warm fuzzies (and may actually be against the law in my particular situation).
  4. Google doesn’t actively recruit Aggies.

Microsoft’s Live@Edu comes in a close second for the following reasons.  Items that are struck through have been resolved in more recent versions of Live@Edu.

  1. Web browser accessible – well, not ALL web browsers.  IE, Firefox, and Safari are the only 3 supported.  Yeah, that’s the majority, but I like Google Chrome.  I also know people who use Opera, Konqueror, and others.
  2. OS independent – again, if your OS runs (and you are willing to use) IE, Firefox, or Safari, you’re ok.
  3. Document collaboration – This is HUGE!  To share and collaborate on documents, you MUST have Microsoft Office installed.  You can share lists and text docs online, but to do anything fancy/creative, you must have Microsoft Office.  That was a deal breaker for me.  I can’t go telling Dr. Linux Evangelist that they need MS Office (not available for Linux) to use our new cool electronic collaboration suite.  With the availability of Office 2010 beta, this service is actually better than Google’s offering.
  4. Assumes it is authoritative for your domain!  If you set up Live@Edu for domain.edu and then try to send an email to userx@domain.edu (who still has an email account on the domain.edu email server), it’ll bounce.  This was a little annoying.  There are work-arounds, and they work.  There’s a work-around for this, but it’s still annoying.
  5. MORE storage than Google!!  10GB for FREE, 25GB for <$20/year (academic pricing).
  6. They heavily recruit A&M graduates, especially Computer Science grads!

Questions/Comments?

There’s a box down there that says “Leave a comment.”  If you have a valid question or concern, I’ll do my best to get a satisfactory answer for you.

For even more details, view my presentation on this subject (slides may change at any time)

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