WHEN first-year students at Dartmouth College arrive on campus this fall, they'll get to know each other in all the traditional ways: in dorm rooms, dining halls, and classes. They'll also get to know each other electronically.
About a decade ago, the Hanover, N.H., college began recommending that all incoming students buy Macintosh computers; several years later, it determined that these students needed a better way of communicating with one another.
The college found that commercial Macintosh-based electronic mail systems were too complicated and that most could not support a large number of users. Its conclusion: Dartmouth should create its own system.
In May, the college began offering its ``BlitzMail'' system for free on the Internet. Blitzmail is based on a Unix computer system, which can send and receive messages on the Internet.
``Our plan is to make it available, let other institutions try it, and then look at what needs to be done to make it easier and more attractive,'' says Rich Brown, manager of special projects for Dartmouth's computer services department. ``Once dozens or hundreds of sites are using [BlitzMail] successfully, then we may attract [a] paying clientele.''
Other organizations and universities also have had a hard time finding cost-effective, easy-to-use E-mail systems, Brown says, and Dartmouth hopes BlitzMail will be a better option.
Early on, the folks at Dartmouth pinpointed a few essentials: The system needed to be easy to use and inexpensive; proper names as E-mail addresses were preferable; and the new system had to handle 8,000 to 10,000 mail accounts.
``We produced 39 different versions of [BlitzMail] in six months,'' Mr. Brown says. ``And then we spent the next six months doing a huge amount of interface testing.'' Brown's team went to offices and dorm rooms, watching faculty and students use the system and asking questions.
``We got some astonishing insights that way,'' Brown says. ``Many times, there were words wrong in the menus. Other times, we realized we had it all wrong and what people wanted to do was something quite different.''
Most people at Dartmouth now take BlitzMail for granted, Brown says. The school even prints out paper copies of messages for those who don't use computers. ``That's why this is a success,'' he says. ``Everybody, one way or another, reads electronic mail.''