Saturday, September 27, 2008

Let's take this new webmail for a test drive...

Yesterday, the USG announced a sorely-needed improvement to our antediluvian webmail system. Bless you, OIT! You guys are so cute. And so late. If this new development is rain in the desert, then it's falling on empty villages. We are 21st century students, here! We do not just sit around hoping that our webmail interface will improve on its own. Most of us nomads have already moved on to greener pastures, to extend an already tenuous metaphor, and we are not likely to return.

Despite my unwavering loyalty to Gmail, however, curiosity got the best of me. The new mail system is available to test until its release on the 14th, so I decided to check it out. Screenshots after the jump.

Exhibit A, a refresher: recall the days of IMAP.

It is an artifact of more primitive times, somewhat charming in its simplicity. A classic that functioned sufficiently when used for what it was -- a basic, bare-bones interface for sending and receiving email -- at least when it functioned at all.

The first thing you may notice when you go to log on to is that this beloved staple of telecommunication at Princeton is still available, should you ever fall victim to nostalgia. Oh, sweet relief.
The next thing that stands out is that you can choose between two mysterious interfaces. There's "Simple (All Browsers)", and "Advanced (IE Preferred)". Curioser and curioser.

Finally, hidden under more options, there's also the option to choose your language. There's a nice assortment: no Chinese, but it includes plenty of other languages with difficult characters such as Arabic, Japanese, and Thai. The French looked okay when I tried it, but I'll leave the other languages to people who actually understand them.

Being a devout fan of Firefox, I naturally tried the Simple interface first. And it is just that: simple. It's cleanly designed, with a mild color scheme and a pretty sleek layout. The buttons in the corner are a nice touch, though the giant @ logo is a bit too much.

(In this screenshot and the next, the sender names were edited out for great justice. But have no fear, both interfaces do indeed display the sender name for each email. Note shameless GXC plug.)

It seems a little confused about Today (the GXC email was sent last night, for instance), but I didn't think that was such a big deal.

Satisfied that OIT had done a pretty terrific job, I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers, and grudgingly booted up Internet Explorer.

It crashed, of course, so I opened it up in an IE tab on Firefox. It wasn't really worth the effort.

First of all, the start page gives a list of your most recent email mesages. You press the triangle to expand the message, except all you get is an ellipsis. (I assume that this is something that they're working on.) When you click on the actual message itself, it opens in a new window, which is totally bogus. Luckily, there's an actual inbox that's actually normal, but it's nowhere near as pretty as the Simple version, which as we all know is an important criterion for email interfaces.

The folders menu on the left is great, but unncessary, especially considering you have another one on your right. I guess the login history is useful for making sure no one else is breaking into your account. Also, I was astonished to find that we actually have 1GB of storage! But that's not relevant.

They try very hard to make it look like a Windows Explorer window, but I don't really need the time and date on the bottom right, especially since Windows computers display the time and date on the bottom right of the screen. The toolbars look like they'd be adjustable (since they look the same as unlocked toolbars in windows), but they're not. I'm glad, because it already takes way too long to load (though maybe that's just IE being slow).

Finally, I am extremely amused by the Send/Receive button. Yes, it's one button. What does it do? It takes you to your inbox. That's great.


Martha Vega said...

Nice post Lil. I just wanted to point out that there's actually a fairly good reason why the University hasn't just switched to Gmail, mostly that we own our own servers and wouldn't if we outsourced our email. This might or might not be relevant for the general University population at large, especially since most of us probably have multiple email accounts, but personally it's the main reason I don't just forward all of my mail to Gmail.

As to the interface of the new webmail client... I guess it's ok. Kind of gives me a panic attack to look at either one, not that there's any logical reason why they should, so I can't really blame OIT for that. My only real complaint is that as far as I could figure you can't customize the color scheme.

I think the main improvement however will just be the improvement in space.

Anonymous said...

"Exhibit A, a refresher: recall the days of IMAP."

IMAP is a protocol used for email retrieval. The old webmail used it, the new webmail uses it, even your preferred GMail can be enabled to use it.

Not that big a deal, but just thought I would point out that there is a difference between a user interface design and a protocol.

Lillian Zhou '11 said...

Oh. Thanks for letting me know. :) I should probably wikipedia these things before posting about them.