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Microsoft Announces Move Into Cloud Services for Schools

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In perhaps a shot across the bow at Google, Microsoft will offer its Office 365 software, typically purchased by businesses for communication and collaboration, to schools for free through cloud computing, the company announced today.

Those who work in schools may be familiar with Microsoft's enterprise products—email, instant messaging, calendars, and its suite of applications that include Word, Power Point, and Excel. Office 365 has been available to enterprise clients for about a year and a beta version for schools has been kicking around for a little while too. But this is the first time a version of Office 365 will be offered to all education institutions for use in the classroom and based in the cloud.

ISTE2012_logo-thumb-200x122-3648.jpgTeachers can use it to build web pages for their courses, communicate with students, teach lessons virtually, and manage documents. Microsoft can offer the product for free to schools because of the success of Office 365 among businesses and corporations, said Anthony Salcito, vice president of worldwide education for Microsoft.

"It enables us to provide the solutions to schools, but is already supported by industry [clients]," Salcito said in an interview at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, currently ongoing in San Diego.

Schools that already use Microsoft's Live@edu product, which has 28 million school users and offers some of the same features as Office 365, will be phased into Office 365 over the next 18 months, Salcito said. Office 365 will work on multiple operating systems and devices, and can integrate with software schools are already using. Microsoft is currently pushing its new operating system, Windows 8, to schools and recently entered the tablet business with its Surface product.

Schools can still use Office 365 as a paid product through servers if it wants increased security. But by moving services to the cloud, schools may be able to save money on server costs and, in turn, IT personnel costs, Salcito said.

For instance, Nashville schools already use the software as an enterprise client, but will use the cloud-based version to replace Google Apps for Education, said John Williams, Nashville's executive director of technology and information services. Previously, he said, teachers were using Office 365 to communicate internally but using Google Apps in the classroom.

"It allows us to get everyone on the same platform," Williams said in an interview.

Microsoft seems to have its eye firmly set on Google with this announcement. Google's free cloud-based applications are popular among teachers, and while they too are not a money-making product for Google, it is a good way to get young, digitally native students familiar with the brand.

Salcito said despite the free price tag, Microsoft can benefit from the same early familiarity. He also didn't shy away from comparing Office 365 to Google Apps for Education, noting the limitations of offering consumer products to institutions and businesses (though Google's apps for those customers do have added features and security). Even some of Microsoft's company materials (including this infographic) have taken aim at Google.

For those that think technology's field of competition only concerns consumers and businesses, think again.

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