Microsoft said Tuesday that it is adding the hosted Microsoft Exchange Labs to Live@edu, its online services for colleges and universities. Paul DeGroot, an analyst for Directions on Microsoft in Kirkland, Wash., said the move is a direct response to Google, which has had success getting schools to dump Microsoft Exchange systems for Google Apps Education Edition. (Google Apps for Edu, as it's also known, features Gmail, Google Talk, Google Calendar and other tools.)
"This is a very important long-term play," DeGroot said. "Microsoft has more to lose here."
DeGroot noted that Microsoft may not gain financially by adding the hosted Microsoft Exchange Labs to Live@edu -- it may just be a way to keep colleges and universities from jumping ship to Google. The fact that Microsoft is still going forward with the strategy shows how seriously company executives take the Google vs. Microsoft showdown, he said.
"Microsoft's willingness to compete with Google suggests that they do see this as the future," he said.
But Bruce Gabrielle, senior product manager for Live@edu, denied that the move was meant to escalate the Google vs. Microsoft battle. He pointed out that Live@edu debuted on campuses before Gmail and Google Apps.
"We're just paying attention to what users are asking for," he said. "Microsoft needs to make a decision. Are we an on-premise software company, or are we a software-plus-services company? We're a software-plus-services company, and we need to keep up with the industry trend."
The Live@edu team will now turn its attention to the channel, where value-added resellers (VARs) and systems integrators (SIs) can help the hosted Microsoft Exchange Labs tie into schools' back-office enterprise resource planning (ERP) and student information systems, Gabrielle said.
"Something we've been talking about a lot internally at Microsoft is, 'What is the partner role?'" Gabrielle said. "Partnering is the next big strategic move for us."
Launched in 2005, Live@edu previously offered Hotmail inboxes for hosted email customers. Colleges and universities were looking for hosted email as more students abandoned their school-provided email addresses for other services that they could access from Web browsers and mobile devices, Gabrielle said.
College students are "a whole new breed," he said.
Tim Gilbert, chief marketing officer for Campus Management, a Microsoft partner in Boca Raton, Fla., agreed that higher education is a unique market. Unlike some other businesses and organizations, colleges and universities promote openness, collaboration and innovation -- and Live@edu services make it possible to do so, Gilbert said.
"This announcement really strikes the final string on the chord that Microsoft gets it in terms of the spirit of higher education," he said.
Hosted Microsoft Exchange Labs, now available through Live@edu, gives users up to 10 GB of inbox space and can handle attachments of up to 20 MB. Students and alumni can access their email, contacts and calendars through Outlook Web Access, Microsoft Office Outlook and Web-enabled mobile devices, Microsoft said. Additional features include calendar sharing, student directories, distribution lists and custom themes with school logos and branded email addresses.
Microsoft claims that about 2,000 colleges and universities in 86 different countries are Live@edu customers. Google boasts "thousands" of customers but did not provide a specific number.