SquirrelMail gets an update

Credit: Juan Fernandez/Staff Credit: Juan Fernandez/Staff

Computing Services gave Carnegie Mellon’s webmail a new look over winter break. When students and faculty logged into their SquirrelMail accounts after the break, they saw a more modern layout and some changes in functionality.

Computing Services email team manager Shlomo Balass said via email, “Computing Services heard the feedback from the community that the existing webmail service was not meeting their needs, and frankly rather ugly, especially given how the state of webmail has changed over the past years.”

After hearing this feedback, the email team for Computing Services started a project geared at updating the webmail site. According to Balass, the strongest aspect of the old webmail system was its custom theme selection. The team decided to focus on this part of the site.

“We did some research and found a company that provided a number of modern themes at an affordable price,” Balass said.

When students and faculty returned from break and opened up the webmail site, they were greeted by a brand new interface. “I was surprised. I didn’t know the changes were coming. I opened it up, and ‘Oh! That’s a new look!’ ” said Diane Turnshek, outreach coordinator for the physics department.

However, students and faculty have noticed more than mere aesthetic changes to the site.

One new function to Andrew Webmail is the auto-complete feature in the email address bar, which automatically detects who users are trying to email when they type in names or Andrew IDs.

Though faculty and students alike appreciate the changes, they have found a few flaws.

“There are clunky parts and things that are better,” Turnshek said.

She noted the auto-complete function in the address bar as one occasional source of frustration. “It auto-completes everything, including all the mistakes I’ve made. So I have to figure out which are the incorrect ones I’ve typed,” she said.

Senior electrical and computer engineering major Ninar Nuemah also noticed that SquirrelMail no longer automatically fills out a list of email addresses, or a d-list, that had been typed out in the past. Nuemah said that this was a feature of SquirrelMail she heavily relied on, and that she now has to manually copy and paste lists of addresses.

First-year English major Cassie Geckle said that opening an email in SquirrelMail now causes readability problems. “Whenever you open an email in SquirrelMail, it will change the formatting sometimes, or it will put in weird little things where there are supposed to be symbols instead of the actual symbols. You have to download a document to see the actual symbols. Why are we doing that?” Geckle said.

For the most part, students and faculty agree that the changes made were much needed. John Oddo, assistant professor of rhetoric, said that when he arrived at Carnegie Mellon, he was surprised at the old email system, given the university’s reputation.

“It reminded me of my very first email account. I know that seems odd, but I remember when email was first created,” Oddo said. “[SquirrelMail] was primitive-seeming. Now they made it more contemporary and gave it bells and whistles.”

According to Geckle, a lot of her floormates stopped using SquirrelMail within a week of arriving and moved on to other email clients.

“I thought that there are better email clients out there. It wasn’t very good at all,” Geckle said. “It’s not much better, it’s a little bit better. I think it’s easier to use now.”

Turnshek even asked her fellow co-workers if they noticed the changes made to Carnegie Mellon’s webmail system. “Not a lot of people use it, so either a) they didn’t notice the changes or b) they didn’t know it even changed,” Turnshek said. “They got frustrated with [the old email] and moved on.”

“No one mentioned it to me. Technology sometimes becomes invisible unless it gives you issues,” Oddo said. “The visual experience you have colors your interpretation of technology.”

Balass said that Computing Services welcomes feedback from the community about what should be changed. “Webmail services are never static,” Balass said. “As people become more savvy and as email needs change, the webmail application has to evolve to meet the community’s needs.”