Blitzmail Blitzed by Blitz-2-Blitz

By Christina Chen

Why Microsoft?

Blitzmail is commonly referred to as an “ancient” piece of technology, incomparable to today’s cutting-edge programs, so fancily styled that an e-mail sender even has the power to bold text. But despite its flaws, the program is simple, easy to use, and a quaint beloved Dartmouth institution, so ingrained in our culture that even Conan O’Brien paid his respects during his Commencement speech.

Therefore, undergraduate attitude towards the Administration’s decision to replace Blitzmail with Microsoft Online Services (MOS) has ranged widely. Some are relieved that the antiquated system is no more, some grumble about Microsoft’s user-unfriendliness, and others claim conspiracy theories of illegal payments or administrative affiliations to Microsoft.           

“I don’t like how the presentation is so limiting,” says John Guo ’13. He points at the left column of his browser page, where only a paltry sum of e-mails can be seen without scrolling.

Blitzmail excelled at sending short messages, lots of them, and rapidly (excepting campus blitzes that is) . Microsoft e-mail in comparison seems significantly less convenient. Because of this cumbersomeness, Guo predicts that MOS will dramatically alter Dartmouth’s social life as students become disinclined to the methods of furious e-mail publicity.

While losses are numerous in this transition, the most serious in my opinion is that of the Dartmouth Name Directory. In other words, we no longer can use nicknames. Gone are the days in which all one had to do to blitz John Smith, was to simply type John Smith in the “to” line, space and all, or even JS if he had so chosen to nickname himself such. Here now is the era of formal addresses and correct punctuation.

Besides student dissatisfaction with the replacement choice, much criticism has also been leveled at the Administration for ignoring the advisory committee’s recommendation for students to use Gmail. When the process of finding Blitzmail’s replacement for the College of Arts & Sciences began in 2007, the Taskforce on Email and Collaboration Tools (TEC-T) was formed.

True to campus rumors, the Taskforce had originally leaned towards Google as several articles in The Dartmouth have elaborated. However, after Jim Kim came into office, opinion swung the other way. The new President changed his e-mail system and that of the staff working closest to him to Microsoft Exchange, commissioning a reconsideration of the new e-mail system in the meantime.

This information admittedly sounds sketchy, and the image of an authoritarian ruler imposing his will on a helpless school is irresistible, especially considering that the Communication and Collaboration Tools study group (CoCo Tools), which took over TEC-T’s role and expanded the scope of consideration to include the whole University, still ultimately recommended Gmail for undergraduate students in 2010.

            The   problem is that undergraduates are not Dartmouth’s only constituents. Graduate students, faculty, and staff of the College of Arts & Sciences, Thayer Engineering School, Tuck Business School, Dartmouth Medical School, Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and Administrative staff also number amongst the masses who use e-mail on the campus. CoCo Tools was responsible for finding the best and most sensible solution for all, and the Administration was supposed to act accordingly.

Another important point to realize is that not all of Dartmouth uses Blitzmail. Tuck has been using Microsoft Exchange for upwards of ten years, the DHMC since 2009, and the President and his principle staff since Jim Kim’s move into office  The rest of the administration was scheduled to complete its transition to Microsoft Online Services in the fall of 2010. The question remained as to which system Thayer, DMS, and the College would use.

Based on Student Assembly conducted surveys, about 70% of student response preferred Google, recounted William Hix ’12, member of CoCo Tools. On the other hand, because a number of DMS professors also worked at DHMC, there was concern that alternating between Blitz and Microsoft Exchange to access patient files heightened the probability of there being leaks of confidentiality. Thus, the CoCo Tools report given in May 2010 included a majority recommendation that states “that Dartmouth provide Google Apps as the default…within the A&S Division and the Thayer School of Engineering, and MOS as the default…within the Dartmouth Medical School.”

However, a minority recommendation was also given suggesting, “that all of Dartmouth College migrate…to Microsoft Online Services.” The administration ended up following the minority recommendation, not because of misled sympathy for the underdog, but, as the administration saw it, it made sense. MOS provided the best applications, security, and financial options for the school, and allowed Dartmouth to fall under a unified communications system.

At an educational institution of Dartmouth’s stature, communication security is paramount, especially as electronic mail is such a permanent and surprisingly accessible fixture. With professors engaged in governmental work or patient matters, keeping messages contained was a significant factor in deciding on Microsoft Online Services. That 61 out of the top 100 US News & World Report schools use Google’s system also does not discredit the Administration’s choice and is rather a reflection of Dartmouth’s differing needs.

As Dartmouth also succumbed to the financial crisis, budget cuts were demanded and changes were enacted. Blitzmail, an archaic technology and completely Dartmouth controlled system, was an opportunity to revamp and conserve. The college had been housing its own e-mail storage center in the basement of Berry Library and employing a number of technicians to attend to the inevitable malfunctions. By adopting a corporate model, Dartmouth could cede the responsibility and cost of maintaining a storage system to Microsoft and could cut the number of employees needed for its maintenance.

As for the rumors that financial assistance was given to persuade administrators, Waite-Franzen declares, “Dartmouth did not receive any funding from Microsoft for any part of [the Blitzmail transition].” She further emphasized, “Microsoft is considered the industry standard.” The company has had a lengthy and excellent reputation with its e-mailing services, whereas Google, although committed to Gmail, has been known to lose faith in their products and pull out. Computing services could not risk any future volatility.

Robert McClung, Biology Professor and previous chair of TEC-T, supported the choice of Microsoft, stating that having two different systems would have required yet another merging interface to allow interaction between users of different systems. The number of necessary technical staff would have also had to be doubled to oversee both systems’ transitions and maintenance. As Dartmouth was already Microsoft inclined, it was practical to streamline the entire school accordingly.

Change is never easy. There are always those who may not agree with the decision handed out, and in the case of Blitzmail’s transitions, the Google champions claim this party. Their voices can be heard in conversations and online article comments discussing Google’s superiority and the Administration’s idiocy. Nevertheless, a decision has been made and also by Administrative decision, meaning Jim Kim was not the only one who thought MOS would be the practical solution. David Kotz, head of the CoCo Tools that in majority, recommended Google for the College, commented that he too eventually agreed on Microsoft as the best option.

There was no mystery behind the Administration’s deliberation or an incredible story about power perversely getting its way. The decision was rational and thought out with genuine intentions for the good of Dartmouth.

Did one party have more power than another? Sure. As hierarchical systems work, specific people’s opinions have proportionally greater weight. Was the communication to the student body obvious and forthcoming? Not really. Having put so many resources into deliberation, an equal amount of effort should be imparted to explain that process and its conclusions. Students and alums alike have not demonstrated an understanding of the Administration’s actions. Although this could admittedly simply be a matter of laziness on their part, disappointment at decision makers and their choices has been abundant these past few years and critiques of ineffective communication numerous. These issues have become old and even cliché despite Jim Kim’s tenure having barely scratched the three-year mark. Sitting atop Hanover’s ivory tower certainly gives one a broader perspective than that of a student who scrambles at the institution for a mere four years, but it does not excuse what has repeatedly appeared to be laxness in establishing communication. Having only three more terms to go, I sincerely hope to see improvements in these matters.

Yet as always in face of campus issues, Dartmouth is committed to helping ease the transition. Computing services has set up help desks on first floor Berry and the Hacker Club will be sending out its own creation to campus – Blitz Listr., an application to convert Blitzlists to formats compatible with the new e-mail system.

For those Google wailers, one can still forward e-mails to a Gmail account and continue using outside servers as before. And for those nostalgic beings, the new e-mail will still be called Blitz. 

Although the terminology could easily fade out when the ‘14s leave campus, good news may still be in the horizon.  When it Blitzmail first launched, as with most changes, was not received with any particular fanfare, yet on its leave, we all stubbornly hold on to it, bidding heartfelt goodbyes.