A university has provided its students with free access to an advertising-free version of Google Apps, including webmail, online documents and calendars.
The University of Portsmouth opened the service to nearly 30,000 students in late August. So far it has around 4,300 active users, including people from China, Nepal and Nigeria, even though it is still weeks before the start of term.
The university has previously provided a webmail service, but this was used by only a fifth of students. Julian Lintell-Smith, a senior manager for the university's information services department, said the new service has been designed with input from students, so will hopefully attract more users.
The Google system provides much more capacity — 7Gb for each student, compared with up to 100Mb on the old service, which will stay in place for the rest of this year to allow people to move across.
It also adds online word processing, spreadsheets, calendar, chat and site building functions.
Users can continue to use their Google accounts when they leave, but the company will introduce advertising at that point.
Lintell-Smith said the new system is more friendly, as well as having more functions. He said that, when allocating addresses for the old webmail system: "We used to provide three letters and a number, so it was quite impersonal". With the new Google Apps service, "we are using the first name and last name", followed by @myport.ac.uk, based on the university's standard port.ac.uk domain name.
Lintell-Smith added that establishing the directory has exposed data-quality issues with the university's database of student names, and is also likely to increase costs, despite some specific savings.
"We don't have to buy servers to run our existing email. When they are decommissioned, there will be a saving." But the university expects greater support costs, through providing a much greater range of online services.
Google has committed to providing the service for free and with no advertising to the university for four years, and will establish application programme interfaces allowing data to be exported if the university decides to move.
Lintell-Smith said this provides protection against Google changing the service. He added that, despite recent problems with availability of Google Apps, the company is likely to do a better job of supporting such a service than the university.
As for questions over data protection, Lintell-Smith said: "It was a big area we looked at. Google is signed up to the Safe Harbour Act." This commits a US company to comply with European data-protection standards, even when information is stored outside Europe.