January 22, 2001, 4:44 PM — Fourteen months after announcing the largest e-mail outsourcing deal ever, United Airlines has yet to take flight with its Web-based service or save a penny from the much-touted arrangement with provider USA.Net.
The United Airlines project underscores how complex providing corporate e-mail systems has become. It also shows the importance of understanding user needs and coordinating with other ongoing IT development efforts.
While still optimistic about the Web mail project, United and USA.Net officials admit it was much more complicated than anticipated.
"This is not a trivial exercise," says Ajay Singh, director of research and development at United Airlines Operations. "There were network deployment issues and various planning to do with this kind of migration. But we're now in a beta-testing phase with our select mobile users."
"The United project, being as large as it is, did have more complexity than our other opportunities," says David Ramon, president of USA.Net. "It did take longer than anticipated, but in the end it'll be a better result."
In November 1999, United made headlines by becoming the first large company to choose hosted Web mail for its entire 100,000-person workforce. United awarded USA.Net a five-year deal that analysts estimated was worth $6 million per year.
The main driver behind the deal was United's need to communicate electronically with mobile workers such as pilots and flight attendants, who demand anywhere, anytime e-mail access via the Internet. They also wanted to save money and free IT staff to work on other projects.
Analysts heralded the deal as a boon to the fledgling e-mail outsourcing industry, which also includes Critical Path and Mail.com.
"When [this deal] was announced, people said, 'Wow! We can't believe a company this large is going to outsource messaging,'" recalls Paige Cattano, director of product marketing at Critical Path.
Since then, other large companies have followed suit, including Circuit City, which migrated 65,000 users to Critical Path's Web mail service this fall, and Sabre Holdings, which will provide Mail.com's Web mail service to 100,000 travel agents by year-end.
"It's amazing how far we've come in a year," Cattano says.
United, however, didn't make as much progress in 2000. The company still runs Hewlett Packard's Open Mail software on two servers in its data center in Chicago and provides e-mail service to only 20,000 of its management personnel.
The original plan was to replace Open Mail with USA.Net's Web mail service. Then United would begin rolling out Web mail to pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and customer service representatives - about 80,000 workers that have no e-mail access today.