With Google Apps Education Edition gaining market traction in thousands of universities across the country, Microsoft can ill afford to rest on its lofty on-premises software laurels.
The software giant, looking to make inroads against Google Apps in the SAAS(software as a service) market, May 27 said it is providing its Microsoft Exchange Labs hosted e-mail applications free for university students and alumni.
Microsoft Exchange Labs is now part of Live@edu, a Microsoft R&D communications and collaboration project based on Microsoft Exchange Server.
An alternative to the education editions of Google Apps and Yahoo's Zimbra e-mail service, Microsoft Live@edu includes Windows Live Hotmail, Windows Live Messenger, Microsoft Office Live Workspace and Windows Live SkyDrive online storage, which lets users share documents and photos.
Students can use these tools to communicate with each other and teachers through e-mail and instant messaging. Students also can use Live@edu to complete coursework solo or to collaborate on group projects using the Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint applications in Office Live Workspace.
Since Live@edu launched in March 2005, 2,000 universities and colleges in 86 countries have enrolled in the program. These include UNINOVE, a large university in Brazil that boasts more than 70,000 students, and Kagoshima University in Japan, which deployed Live@edu for its 16,000 users.
Google claims millions of students and faculty at more than 6,000 universities are using Google Apps.
Students Demand Alternatives
With Exchange Labs in the Live@edu mix, universities will be able to provide students with hosted e-mail with up to 10GB inboxes and 20MB attachments, Bruce Gabrielle, senior product manager for Microsoft's Live @edu software, told eWEEK. Students can now also access their e-mail, contacts and calendar from Outlook Web Access and Microsoft Office Outlook, as well as from mobile phones with Exchange Labs.
Gabrielle said Microsoft launched Live@edu after a buildup of student demands for alternatives to proprietary e-mail systems, or even as an alternative to Microsoft's Exchange-driven Outlook system.
Microsoft used Hotmail in some cases to solve the problem, but for students using mobile phones all the time, a more comprehensive suite of communication and collaboration software was necessary.
Other features of the service include shared calendars (with Exchange Labs, users cannot see Google's free/busy calendar, but can send and receive meeting invites from Google Calendar); student directories that enable administrative control to create distribution lists; and the ability to add faculty and staff who are using on-premises Exchange to student directories.
Security is of paramount importance at any institution, so Live@edu with Exchange Labs also allows message tracking to confirm that e-mails were delivered and includes content filtering so that admins can quash e-mails with offensive content.
Hotmail Alternative by 2010
Exchange Labs comes as Microsoft, Google and Yahoo are locked in a titanic battle for the education e-mail sector, Gartner analyst Matt Cain said in a research note.
"Exchange is a richer platform than Hotmail, [so] it represents a more competitive offering than the Google platform," Cain wrote. "The ... Exchange Labs option also allows Microsoft to test new Exchange features and functionality at high volumes, and is designed to perform better in a hosted environment than the current version of Exchange (Exchange 2007, SP1)."
Cain said he expects Exchange Labs will replace Hotmail at universities by 2010 and noted that the advantages of running Exchange Labs rather than Gmail for students (while running Exchange on premises) include a common global address list that makes address look up easier and a consistent end-user and IT staff experience.