Google, Microsoft woo higher ed with free online services

Google's ambitious plan to woo college and university IT departments into outsouring e-mail, Web apps and calendaring.

You can think of it as "Schoogle."

That would be Google's laid-back but unflinchingly ambitious plan to woo college and university IT departments into outsourcing not just student e-mail but Web-based productivity applications and calendaring to the search giant.

And a growing number of schools are doing just that. Wednesday Google announced 13 new U.S. institutions had signed up for the free, and ad-free, cloud-based services, ranging from the Collin County Community College District, in Plano, Texas, to giants such as Kent State and Indiana University.

That brings the total number of Googlized institutions worldwide to about 2,000 since the Google Apps Education Edition program was announced almost two years ago. Google says there are now 1 million active users among their students and faculty. To promote the idea, Google also announced it's launching in September the "App to School" road trip, a 10-stop tour, aboard an "eco-friendly" bus, visiting schools from coast to coast to talk about Google applications and listen to what students have to say about them.

Google isn't alone courting both IT departments and, especially, students: Microsoft's presence, with its Microsoft Live online services, makes the courtship a battlefield. Outfitting students with Windows laptops is no longer enough to ensure their loyalty. To meet and hold a new generation that's living on the Web, both companies are turning to a new generation of Web applications. Microsoft just released a new Flash-based front end to Live.

The Web is less about the individual and more about a personal experience of participating in a group for work and play, says Jeff Keltner, business development manager for Google Apps Education Edition. "There is a personal experience, but it moves away from [being centered on] the one machine," Keltner says. "All I need today is an Internet connection and a Web browser."

Google's education outreach began with Arizona State University (ASU), which outsourced its entire e-mail operation for 65,000 students to Google's Gmail, giving users a range of services unavailable on the school's existing e-mail system, such as 6GB of storage, built-in chat, and search, without spam headaches or downtime. It saved ASU about US$400,000 per year in IT infrastructure costs, according to Adrian Sannier, ASU's University Technology Officer.

"Your [IT] people are saying, 'we can do it,'" Sannier told the opening day audience this week at the Campus Technology 2008 conference. "And they can. They can build pyramids, too." His voice rose dramatically. "But there's no money in it!"

The idea, he told his audience, is "to get someone else to do it. Someone really big."

Google and Microsoft offer a somewhat customized version of a Web portal with services. Both can create an extension to their respective e-mail domain with the school's name, for example, studentname@gmail.schoolname.edu, though for some customers there's no visible change. When students graduate, the school notifies Google or Microsoft, which then ends the student account, while offering the student the option to continue with either a free or paid "post-graduate" online service.

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