Google, Microsoft woo higher ed with free online services

Google announced new college and university customers, who are outsourcing e-mail services and collaboration applications to the cloud. Microsoft also is making the Web a battleground for a new generation of users.

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. Yesterday 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 $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.

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 $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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