The University of California at Berkeley has chosen Google over Microsoft for its campus-wide email and calendar services, and it will tell you why — in great detail.
Google and Microsoft are locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of businesses, government agencies, and schools across the globe, each touting its own suite of business applications as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Sometimes, Google wins, and sometimes Microsoft. But Berkeley’s choice is worth noting because the university so carefully explained why it picked one over the other. Though both Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 are billed as “cloud” services, they are very different things. Google is built to operate entirely on the web, while Microsoft’s suite still leans on local software.
Berkeley plumped for Gmail and Google Calendar in part because they’re cheap — Google offers its Apps to schools and colleges for free — but the university looked at far more than just price. This week, it laid out a detailed comparison of Google and Microsoft on its public website. “We’re a public university so we want to be transparent about the decision,” Shelton Waggener, the UC Berkeley CIO, tells Wired.
While Google came out ahead in a large majority of Berkeley’s email-related evaluations, Waggener said that the decision was not as easy as it may look on paper. With the school’s roughly 70,000 students and staff already using so many web and software tools on their own, he said, the IT department must consider not only its own preferences but the preferences of so many others. “We recognize that whatever choice we make, we’ll have to continually re-evaluate,” he says. “These aren’t permanent decisions anymore.”
The school started looking for new services in part because of recent outages on its existing email system, CalMail. Google’s ability to move the school from CalMail to Gmail in an estimated six to ten weeks was an important consideration, according to Berkeley’s report. “A UC Berkeley migration to Google can start faster and with less infrastructure investment,” the report says. “Google’s solution is optimized for web-based interaction. It is designed to be quickly provisioned and a migration to Google could begin more quickly than one to Office 365.”
Office 365, the report says, would require the installation and configuration of local software before any migration could begin and a “significant change” the company’s mail routing infrastructure. “Office 365 offers an integrated experience for on-premise and cloud users,” it reads. “This comes at a greater ongoing, operational expense and complexity of maintaining central infrastructure.” The report also cites recent news that the University of Nebraska still hasn’t completed its migration to Office 365 despite being one of the first university’s to sign-up for the service after its debut this past summer.
All that said, Berkeley liked that Microsoft would allow the company to better straddle the line between local software and services in the proverbial cloud.
The university also liked Gmail because it’s already used by a large swath of students and faculty. The report notes that a “significant” percentage of UC Berkeley’s student body is familiar with Gmail and that a large number of students are already forwarding their existing school email to a Gmail address. After the move to Gmail, the report says, it would be easy for users to retain multiple, separate email accounts. By contrast, there’s not a consumer version of Office 365 comparable to Gmail, the report says, and Microsoft’s solution would force users to consolidate separate accounts into one.
But Google’s victory wasn’t completely one-sided. Microsoft scored well on calendar tools, with the University arguing that a move to Office 365 would cause fewer problems for calendar “power users” — those who “may schedule dozens of meetings a day for several administrators and keep track of one to two dozen calendars minute by minute.” The report says that only about 5 percent of the people on campus are power users, but they account for about fifty percent of calendar use. “The lessened functionality in Google would be a detriment to these power users’ productivity going forward,” the report says.
Microsoft also came out ahead on security. After examining such security issues as authentication, encryption of stored email, and guarantee on where data will be stored, the university fells that Microsoft has a clear edge. “Google is inferior on all fronts,” the report says, “but only by a small margin.”
Asked to comment on Berkeley report, Microsoft pointed to Berkeley recent decision to some of its other software on campus, including Windows. “Productivity is in our DNA,” reads a statement from Microsoft. “This is a market we understand well and care about deeply. We’re delivering the power and familiarity of Office as part of easily consumer cloud solutions that non competitor can match.”
But behind the scenes, according to Berkeley’s Shelton Waggener, Microsoft has contacted the university to take issue with its report, requesting certain changes be made. He also said that several other universities have phoned to thank him for laying out the university’s thinking in such detail.
Berkeley’s very public report spotlights yet another clash of the tech titans. But when you consider the university’s efforts to accomodate what students and faculty are already using — and its ultimate choice of Google — it raises a larger question. Why do schools even provide an email account anyway? Gmail and most web-based clients are free. Schools — especially state school strapped for funding — could save on huge infrastructure costs by cutting the email systems and just letting student use their own accounts. An email address would just be one more data point gathered during registration, like a phone or social security number.
Waggener’s office is considering the question, and he notes that campus surveys find that many students prefer to receive information via text messages and Facebook rather than email. “It’s fair to say that email is for old people,” he says with a laugh. But Waggener is also serving the university’s entire staff and faculty. The university still believes in a unified infrastructure, and all things considered, email and calendars are still a very important part of that. Waggener says that if Berkeley changed technologies with the arrival of each new thing, it would still be using MySpace. “You have to be prepared to move, but you can’t be schizophrenic about it,” he says. “I would rather build the tools to let students choose.”
[Photo: Curtis Cronn/Flickr]