There. I said it. This dyed-in-the-wool Google Apps fan and Google Docs power user just admitted that the new Office 365 for Education was leapfrogging Google Apps for Education even as I write this post. Remember when Microsoft launched its “We’re all in” cloud computing campaign and most of us thought it was nonsense? I mean, how could a company that makes so much money on desktop computing come up with a slogan like that? As it turns out, Office 365 for Education, detailed today at the Microsoft Education Conference in London, makes the cloud a powerful platform for education and collaboration in a genuinely unified way that its competitors (cough, ahem, Google, cough, cough) just haven’t managed to achieve.
Currently, Microsoft offers a subset of Exchange Online and Office Web Apps called Live@Edu for academic institutions. It’s a perfectly nice platform for storing and sharing information online and offers rich email and IM capabilities. It goes beyond “perfectly nice” when you have Microsoft infrastructure to leverage and strengths ranging from massive storage in the cloud to Active Directory integration to high-fidelity rendering of Word documents make Live@Edu a worthy competitor to Google Apps for Education.
Live@Edu, however, has always felt a bit like a token effort by what has become a stodgy old company to get into the student computing space with something that represents their “all in” claims. Obviously a lot of people disagree with me, since Microsoft is also announcing a major milestone in London today: 15 million active student users of Live@Edu. Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at, whether you think of them as future Microsoft customers or just as students who have access to powerful tools for free.
Google, on the other hand, provides a set of tools that, if not brilliantly integrated, were created for the cloud and run very well in a browser. For Google, it has always been a case of the web-as-a-platform. Creating documents that looked just like their Word equivalents was far less important than simply creating content (preferably together).
Now, however, with the introduction of Office 365 for Education, Microsoft is changing the game. Think what you will of Microsoft, Sharepoint 2010 is a very powerful, intuitive, highly customizable platform for workgroup and enterprise collaboration. The cloud-based Sharepoint Online does just as good a job of empowering workers and administrators to create social spaces in which authentic collaborative work or learning can take place.
And here is where the leapfrog begins. When I attended the launch of Sharepoint 2010 last year, I was really impressed by the ease with which users could interact and work together. Google Apps, of course, allows such things as real-time editing with multiple users in the same document, but Sharepoint goes far enough that I called it a potential Facebook alternative. Add to that, threaded discussions, VOIP, and instant messages through Microsoft’s Lync cloud application, make it free for students, and then add Microsoft Office for dirt cheap prices and you end up with quite a compelling package.
That’s right, I said Microsoft Office. There are several so-called “offers” that will be available from Microsoft when Office 365 officially launches; these are essentially package deals with steep discounts on the services not included for free. Some of these offers actually include a copy of Office 2010 Professional so that both the rich desktop clients and the cloud-based server applications can be used to meet student needs.
The offers specifically are:
a1 (academic 1) – entry level, exchange, link, sharepoint for faculty – $6 per staff/month (free for students)
a2 -All features in a1 plus Office Web Apps – $10 per staff/month (free for students)
a3 – All features in a2 plus Office 2010 Professional Plus (available as a managed subscription service for $14/user/month ($2/user/month for students) and manageability features)
a4 – All features in a3 plus on-premise voice capability (Microsoft reps suggested removing an old PBX system in a dorm and moving to VOIP or for creating an international workgroup that requires face-to-face meetings) (17/user/mo for faculty or staff and $5/month for students).
The leapfrog ends with extremely tight integration across all of the cloud-based applications in Office 365. Everything works together quite seamlessly and integrates fully with Active Directory. Google Apps often shows the disparate roots of multiple startup companies whose products became Google Spreadsheets and Google Docs. Office 365 for Education, on the other hand, provides a visually consistent interface that is designed to launch applications and surface backend data whenever necessary.
This leaves us with 2 questions:
- Is going with Google Apps for Education a mistake
in the face of all of this free, well-built collaborative technology?
- Is it worth hopping on the Live@Edu bandwagon now when Office 365 for Education will be available “sometime in 2011??
For the first question, the answer is absolutely not! Google Apps is easy, straigtforward, and will, no doubt, make huge strides to catch up with Office 365. If I had to choose between the two right now, I’d pick Office 365.
For the second question, this is a bit like deciding between the iPad now and waiting for the iPad 2 a few months from now. While Microsoft wouldn’t confirm, I expect that schools moving to Live@Edu will have an easy path to becoming Office 365 schools.
Bottom line, Microsoft’s Office 365 for Education platform really is the next generation of learning productivity tools. Check back for followups as more details crystallize around its formal launch and I highlight cool use cases teachers dream up for these tools. It’s going to be an interesting year!