If any doubt still lingers that popular computing is experiencing yet another fundamental realignment, the skepticism is likely to be erased by the latest salvos in the “battle for the desktop.”

In fairly rapid succession, high-profile companies such as Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, SAP, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo have been rolling out products for personal and business computing that aggressively seek to take greater advantage of the internet to transform how applications are delivered.

The products vary, from online word processors and communication packages to database management, document sharing, and other forms of over-the-web collaboration. But a common goal is to get a leg up on competitors by offering impressive electronic capabilities in the form of web-based software and services, rather than through individual applications like those that most users have long been accustomed to purchasing, installing, and running from the desktop.

While the new focus on internet applications has already has made great inroads in the business world, so far it has received much less attention in education. If history is any guide, however, where businesses go, schools often follow–at least for the potential financial benefits.

The basic idea is to provide more and better computer action for less money, and it’s all taking hold nearly 25 years after John Gage, Sun’s chief researcher, coined the prophetic expression, “The network is the computer.” Today, however, advances in technology are proving to be more catalytic than ever before, and the internet in particular is facilitating change at a stunning pace.

Often called “software as a service,” or SaaS, the new emphasis on internet-based options is expected to become increasingly popular over the next several years. Already, according to the technology research company Gartner Inc., worldwide revenue for SaaS software will top $5.1 billion this year, for a one-year gain of 21 percent.

Robert DeSisto, a Gartner vice president, predicts that SaaS will grow “seven times faster than on-premise software deployments during the next three years.” By 2011, Gartner projects, one-fourth of all new business software will be delivered as a web-based service, with more than half of all software vendors offering it in some form.

As is generally the case with the adoption of new technology, businesses are well ahead of educational institutions in switching to SaaS, DeSisto notes, although the approach has been gradually gaining ground in colleges and universities, where some operations tend to parallel those of the business world.

How quickly elementary and secondary schools may join the web-services bandwagon is hard to tell. But DeSisto says one of the trend’s key advantages is that money for SaaS software can be taken from operating budgets, rather than from capital funds–a factor that could become increasingly persuasive in financially strapped school districts.

But a deeply embedded attachment to desktop applications in both schools and colleges is likely to impede education’s early transition to software as a service, says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project.

In higher education, “it’s going to be slow because it’s a cultural shift,” Green explains. He maintains that SaaS can work well “if you really control the box,” but that with a high degree of student and faculty mobility, many educational institutions may not be inclined or able to cede such control by switching to a web-based approach–except, perhaps, for eMail services.

Green adds that the widespread practice of site-license discounting for software in education will work against rapid SaaS adoption.

In many schools, moreover, the option of replacing familiar desktop applications that have a long history–in terms of usage and expenditures–may seem impractical. School officials’ reluctance to change technologies midstream has been underscored lately by a widespread failure to switch operating systems from Microsoft’s Windows XP to the newer Vista system.

All the same, as software producers jockey for strategic advantage in the expanding battle for desktop influence, some of the key developments are occurring at the largest tech companies. Long-time rivals Microsoft and Apple, for example, are widely expected to introduce operating systems in the next couple of years that take much greater account of the internet.

Microsoft is already offering a free software suite dubbed “Windows Live,” which the company describes as “a new set of services that brings your online world together.”
Components include desktop and web searching, blog creation, voice communication, photo sharing, and computer security.

At the search-engine giant Google, meanwhile, developers have extended the reach of the company’s relatively new online office suite to include a business presentation tool that is clearly intended to compete with Microsoft’s long-popular PowerPoint. Google also has been pitching a “Google Apps” education edition, which includes free tools for communication, collaboration, and publishing, along with eMail accounts “on your school’s domain.”

Google’s online suite for corporate customers got a boost recently from an endorsement by Capgemini, a Paris-based technology consulting firm with worldwide influence on companies’ software choices. Capgemini also will continue to support business software made by Microsoft, IBM, and other vendors.

Meanwhile, Google also has begun offering Sun’s open-source StarOffice package as part of its Google Pack software bundle. Among other reports from the desktop battlefield:

  • IBM has launched a direct assault on Microsoft’s venerable Office software by offering a free internet package called IBM Lotus Symphony, “a suite of free software tools for creating and sharing documents, spreadsheets, and presentations.”

  • SAP, the world’s largest provider of business software, has introduced “Business by Design,” a web-hosted business-management product aimed at customers with 100 to 500 employees.

  • Yahoo has purchased Zimbra, a startup company that provides web-based eMail and hosting services for businesses, universities, and internet service providers. Apparent targets of the $350 million deal: Google and Microsoft.

    The fact that Microsoft, the PC world’s pre-eminent superpower, is ratcheting up its focus on internet services is a telling sign of the times. So were reports this week that both Microsoft and Google, along with other potential investors, have been eyeing the three-year-old social-networking site Facebook.

    At Microsoft, which controls more than 90 percent of the PC operating-system market, leaders appear to have decided that the company’s dominance is at risk unless it moves more decisively into internet plays and the web-services domain. Microsoft’s Chief Executive Steve Ballmer reportedly told financial analysts in July that its future activities in software development would have to include not only the best features of desktop and office software, but also new web services and electronic devices.

    “Every piece of software–the basic core value in the way software gets created–will change in the next three, five, or 10 years,” Ballmer was quoted as saying, although he rejected the notion that the software industry would shift entirely to an internet model.

    Microsoft’s expanding interest in web-related services comes at a time when its overwhelming influence in the desktop realm has suffered a dramatic blow in Europe. In a major antitrust decision on Sept. 17 that is expected to affect tech companies throughout the world, the European Court of First Instance upheld a 2004 European Commission ruling that Microsoft improperly used its market dominance to crush software competitors.

    Legal questions aside, the internet’s growing appeal as a kind of software supermarket has reached a point where its future success, if not yet clearly defined, seems assured.

    Some of the thinking behind the transformation was described by Steve Mills, IBM’s senior vice president and leader of the IBM Software Group, in connection with the company’s announcement of its Symphony suite earlier this month.

    Noting that Symphony supports multiple file formats, including Microsoft Office and Open Document Format, Mills remarked: “The lifeblood of any organization is contained in thousands of documents. With the Open Document Format, businesses can unlock their information, making it universally accessible on any platform and on the web in highly flexible ways.”

    If ed-tech leaders and other school officials aren’t already paying close attention to analyses like that, they’re likely to be doing so soon.

    Links:

    Google Pack, including Sun’s StarOffice

    Google Apps for School

    IBM’s Symphony

    Microsoft’s Windows Live

    SAP’s Business by Design