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.

Drexel University earlier this year launched a pilot to give some of its 20,000 students a choice of four e-mail systems: its own Exchange-based enterprise e-mail, Gmail, Microsoft Windows Live Hotmail and Microsoft's Exchange Labs, which is a pilot program for online, Exchange-based hosted e-mail, launched about six months ago and based on what will be the Exchange 14.0 release. Schools can create mailboxes that use the e-mail and calendar features of the Outlook Web Access client, Web-based self-service management, and the features associated with a Windows Live ID.

Right now, there are 863 Gmail accounts and 255 Hotmail accounts, with far fewer for Exchange Labs. All Drexel students for now are still issued with a Drexel-based e-mail account for official communications, says Drexel CIO John Bielec. The university plans a full-scale roll-out of the program this fall.

"Any service you currently offer, [companies like] Microsoft, Google, Yahoo and others will offer," he says. "It doesn't make sense to be in those businesses."

In Google's case, besides Gmail, there is Google Docs, for online creating and sharing of documents, spreadsheets, presentations; Google Sites, which lets users build simple group Web sites, and add and share files and attachments of all types. Also part of the package are APIs that link into back-end services or applications, such as directories and single sign-on programs, and round-the-clock online and phone tech support.

Googlizing such services is controversial on campuses, although not with students. Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Abilene, Texas, outsourced e-mail to Google in March 2007, after CIO Kevin Roberts struggled to deal with faculty and staff objections to the proposal, including the two most frequently and fiercely cited by opponents: security and privacy. Roberts laid out Google's privacy policy and the proposed contract with ACU, already vetted by the school's legal counsel.

And he told critics that they were "grossly mistaken" if they believed that ACU's own Sun Microsystems-based e-mail system involved zero security risk, a point echoed by ASU's Adrian Sannier. "You've just got to get over the idea that you, your Ma, and your 10-gauge are keeping your data more secure than Google is," he told his audience.

Keltner says Google will not share your data (with certain specific exceptions such as responding to a subpoena), keeps your data as long as you want it, removes your data when you delete it, and lets you take it with you if you go somewhere else.

At ACU, when Gmail went live, the worries died. "Once we went live, the privacy concerns just immediately went away," Roberts says. Eighty-percent of the 5,000 students signed on day one. By the end of the first semester only one person remained on the legacy e-mail system.

Users discovered a wealth of possibilities that never existed before. One of Roberts close friends is an ACU English professor who tells his students they can if they wish grant him editor access to papers they're writing for him in Google Docs, allowing him to offer comments and suggestions during the writing process.

ACU is saving about US$100,000 a year on software licenses and hardware. A full-time programmer has been re-assigned from e-mail to implementing a new project around the Apple iPhone, which would have been impossible otherwise, Roberts says. And the entire university community is on the receiving end of a continuous stream of new Google applications and features.

"You don't get too many 'no brainer' decisions in your career," Roberts says. "But this was one of them."

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