Why Oxford’s email sucks

I’m a student at the University of Oxford, and as is standard practice, they provide a email system for staff and students. It’s called Herald, and I assume it’s a home-grown email server that has evolved from code written in the 1980s.

It’s a piece of crap.

I kid, I kid! Admittedly, that’s probably dropping a little too much hate on its poor aged lines of God-knows-what language. It has basic features and gets the job done… most of the time.

But the internet means so much more to so many more people these days, and Herald isn’t equipped to let people make the most of it. Take webmail, for example: ugly, testy, difficult—these are words which spring to my mind when I think of Herald webmail.  You’re stuck sending and receiving in plaintext, and the interface is offensively bad.  It was never supposed to be this way—Herald was designed to be used via your email client of choice, a hulking server hiding in the shadow of a more carefully crafted interface.  But since the early days of Hotmail, Yahoo! mail, Netscape and the rest, webmail has been a primary avenue of accessing email.  Some people prefer it that way, and its easy to see why: one interface to learn which can be used on any computer with an internet connection and a browser, and no obnoxious setup steps (IMAP or POP3? SMT-what? SSL-port-who?).  And since gmail came on the scene a few years back, there’s simply no reason to believe that webmail can’t be a pleasant experience.  Something is deeply wrong when free webmail services outclass what’s provided to you by the people you pay £10,000 a year.

But still, armies of my classmates here at Oxford use Herald webmail as their primary email.  They hate it, even if they don’t realize it.  I know this because it shows.  They use Facebook to send messages to one another.  That’s right, Facebook.  Facebook, with it’s terrible message editor, iron-fisted threading, and walled-garden take on communication.

But I’ve just been informed of a project in the works at Oxford’s computing services to change all that, and finally move beyond email and into the realm of internet collaboration.  These services have existed for some time now, and what Oxford is proposing isn’t anything groundbreaking—but they’re a hell of a welcome (if overdue) change.

I’ll blog more about them soon.


5 Responses to “Why Oxford’s email sucks”

  1. Sebastian Rahtz Says:

    The University of Oxford has a complex and very distributed IT infrastructure with very little central control. In most ways this is a good thing, but it has a disadvantage that large scale changes tend to happen slowly. This may explain why Herald’s webmail interface has fallen behind, in relation to things which have moved as fast as gmail. However, as you note, an ambitious project was started last year with a very aggressive timetable, and you should see considerable change late this year and during 2009.

    We (I work for the university computing services) are very aware of the issues, I promise! and things will get better.

  2. Dr.J. Says:

    Use Thunderbird instead….

  3. AJ Says:

    or simply use the herald forwarding service from Herald to a googlemail account and allow googlemail to send emails from your Herald address. Google’s interface, Herald’s emails: problem solved.

  4. Nessa Says:

    Am I right in saying that you *can’t* use even the new Nexus Oxford email system with Gmail? I’m not much of a techie, but Nexus isn’t POP3-enabled and Gmail requires it… doesn’t it? xx

    • Spike Says:

      The Nexus back-end is Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, which does support POP3 access–although I can’t find any instructions on how to configure clients. They may be just deliberately steering people to IMAP, or they may not have enabled POP3 at all. If they haven’t enabled POP3, they might if enough people ask for it.

      In the mean time, you can have Exchange redirect your mail to Gmail. You’ll need to access your account either from Outlook or the Internet-Explorer-only “premium” client to set up Rules yourself, but if you’re not on Windows, you might try messaging the OUCS help-desk to get them to set it up for you. I had mine set up for redirecting on Herald, and this setting rolled over to Nexus automatically. Be sure to ask for “redirect” not “forward” or all the incoming messages will have “FW:” prepended to the subject.

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