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Beyond Thunderbird

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Why we are requiring the use of the Gmail web client and not supporting traditional desktop clients like Thunderbird, Outlook, Mail, Eudora, etc.

Let me start by saying that if you don't buy my argument, you have another option: don't migrate to Google Apps. There is no requirement to do so, although we expect this will change in the future.

The migration to Google Apps is not without controversy. "Can we trust Google?" is a common concern and a topic I may write about in the future, but the biggest sticking point for many users is the requirement to use the Gmail web client for sending and receiving email. There are few other changes we could have made that affect a user so profoundly. This decision was not made lightly, and this article is about our reasoning.

Is Gmail Better?
Is Gmail better than Thunderbird*? Honestly, we didn't even consider the question in this way. Both Gmail and Thunderbird are very capable and effective email clients. For the most part, the differences between them are more about preferences, training, and habits than actual capabilities.

Thunderbird works, doesn't it?
Can Thunderbird connect to Google servers? Yes, it can. Is it hard to set up? Not really. So, why can't I use Thunderbird? Because the migration to Google is not just about changing a mail client or even a calendar client, it is about using the whole integrated suite of Google Apps (Mail, Calendar, Sites, Docs, and more) and moving us forward. Use of the Google Apps suite can be a major leap for efficiency, convenience, and collaboration for the college. With shrinking budgets, we need technology to work for us and to work without disruption now more than ever. If all we did was make things the same as they were, there would be no point to the migration. The promised infrastructure cost savings would barely outweigh the time and effort users and techs had to go through to make this happen.

Online Calendaring
What can Google Apps give us that our current tools cannot? Whether or not you liked using UMCal for managing your calendar, it never completed its primary University-wide task: saving time. Since so many people (mostly faculty) chose not to use it, setting up meetings was still a laborious and frustrating task. Even within groups where it should be simple to implement a calendar standard, UMCal-use was never a given. In today's budget emergency, we should all be more than just annoyed at the wasted time it takes to schedule a meeting with people who don't keep an online calendar.

Google Calendar gives us a new opportunity to solve this wasteful problem. For those who have migrated, Google Calendar is turned on automatically. Whether or not you choose to use it, people can--and will--invite you to events. But what does this have to do with Thunderbird? It is not a calendar tool; therein lies the problem.

People who use Thunderbird to read their email may not check their online calendar at all. If this happens frequently enough, confidence in online calendaring will again fall apart.

Calendar invitations are streamlined in Gmail for very quick review and responses. Thunderbird users who plan to keep their online calendar up-to-date will not benefit from this tight integration. To get to their calendar, they'll have to go into Gmail, click over to the Calendar tool, and visually track down the event. This seems inefficient at best and, at worst, it is likely that many Thunderbird users won't bother with the effort--further diminishing the value of the Google migration.

Online Documents
Then there is Google Docs. Feature for feature it cannot compete with Microsoft Word, but how many of us use all those features on a daily basis? Google Docs has unique features, too, that Microsoft Word cannot provide: convenience, easy sharing, and simplicity.

Traditional word processing is plagued by the following problems:
* Work lost to a crash, power failure, or disk error.
* Files are not easily available from other computers.
* Sending files to yourself as email attachments creates unnecessary and potentially confusing duplicates.
* Collaborating with others through email attachments generates even more copies--all with different content, similar file names, and confusing dates.
* Shared Folders help some but cannot be set up quickly or easily with people outside your workgroup.

Think of Google Docs as a "less is more" answer.
* Work anywhere (with Internet access).
* Work on a single file without dealing with multiple versions or carrying around a disk or flash drive.
* All collaborators can view and edit a single copy--no need to send updates or manually integrate ideas from multiple files.
* Google saves automatically and has better "uptime" than either your individual computer or the University servers.
* When you are done with the writing, download it to Word and make your final formatting changes.

Moving Forward
The Google migration has been, and continues to be, a very expensive process. Even though Google is not charging us, countless hours of tech time, faculty time, staff time, and more has gone into this project. If all we get is what we already had, the entire thing has been a wasted effort--at a time we cannot afford waste. The choice to migrate to Google may not have been ours to make, but it is our choice to make the most of it.

* In this article I use Thunderbird to represent all desktop email clients like Outlook, Mail, Entourage, Eudora, etc.

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