Within three weeks, the WebMail application will be replaced with a new version promising more convenience, greater speed and a friendlier user interface. This new version is already available as a pilot alongside the existing version.

“The overriding factor in the development of the new WebMail system is performance,” Information Technology Services analyst and programmer Steve Song said. “We really feel that the priorities are speed, accessibility, reliability and the ability to use attachments successfully. We wanted to make sure that these features work faster than the current WebMail.”

The current WebMail system is widely used among the student population.

“I use it at least four times a day,” junior Neethi Venkateswaran said.

WebMail’s importance to the student community is evident in the Rush Rhees reference section, where one of the few bookmarks on the public computers’ web browsers leads to the WebMail site.

The importance of the system makes any upgrade a delicate endeavor. In developing the new WebMail application, ITS started with one version from the software vendor NetWin, customized it to UR standards and prepared it for an August release.

“Just when we were about to release it, a new version came out that had some improvements,” Song said. This caused the project to be delayed while ITS customized the new version of the software.

NetWin, an internet application developer located in Auckland, New Zealand, also released the version of WebMail currently used by UR. NetWin’s other customers include the University of Southampton and Tellurian Networks, among others.

ITS is optimistic that they will be able to tweak the WebMail interface to better serve students, faculty and staff in the future.

“Before, we were not able to make many changes to the WebMail system because of copyright restrictions,” Song said. “Now, we hope to change the system to respond to feedback from users.”

Throughout the extended pilot program for the new system, ITS relied on user feedback to gauge reactions to the new software. Over 200 faulty, staff, and students participated.

“We did a sort of Google rollout,” Song said of the program. “We wanted to tell users ‘Hey, here’s a new pilot – invite your friends to check it out.'”

A link to the under-development WebMail interface was also available on the original WebMail site.

The objective of the pilot program was to make WebMail a more streamlined application.

“We tried to scale everything down,” Song said. “We did not want anything to hurt [WebMail’s] performance. We could have included pictures and graphics, and we may still do that, but for now we want to make it as simple as possible so that when many people are using the server, it will still work.”

One of the most important features of the new WebMail, according to Song, is the ability to sustain more users than the old version.

Since the new interface is more graphically simple, it should cut down on the number of outages and slowdowns that were seen in the old version.

This, coupled with an updated mail storage system, should allow a greater number of users to be more efficient in sending, receiving and storing mail.

Although many students use WebMail daily, some remain skeptical about it.

“I use Gmail,” senior Phil Reichenberger said. “It gives me a lot more space to store my mail and it is very reliable.”

Others use their UR e-mail addresses but turn to other mail programs such as Microsoft Outlook or Novell GroupWise to open and manage their mail.

The new WebMail interface sports visual upgrades, including a new blue color scheme and easier-to-read buttons.

“The aesthetic far surpasses that of its predecessor,” Chelis said.

In designing the new WebMail, special emphasis was placed on both ease of use and visual refinement.

“The original logout button in the new interface was on the bottom corner of the page,” Song said. “We moved it to the top so that it is much more user friendly.” Acording to users of the system, this is one of the improvements inherent to the new version.

ITS hopes that their new system will be a success, but if the current status of the pilot program is any indication, there should be no problem at all.

“At this point, we already have over a thousand people using the pilot,” Song said. “All of the feedback that we have received so far is positive.”

Majarian can be reached at mmajarian@campustimes.org.

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