Two recent announcements have ratcheted up the rivalry between Microsoft Corp. and Google Inc.–and both could have significant implications for schools.

Just days after Google announced plans to challenge the dominance of Microsoft’s Windows operating system with a free operating system of its own, intended for netbooks, Microsoft revealed that it will give users free access to a web-based version of its Office suite as it seeks to catch up with Google in online applications.

Google aims for easier, more reliable computer operation

In announcing its new operating system, Google fired a salvo at Microsoft by referencing commonly heard complaints about Windows.

“We hear a lot from our users, and their message is clear–computers need to get better,” read a July 7 post on Google’s official blog.

“People want to get their eMail instantly, without wasting time waiting for their computers to boot and browsers to start up. They want their computers to always run as fast as when they first bought them,” wrote Sundar Pichai, vice president of product management, and Linus Upson, engineering director.

“They want their data to be accessible to them wherever they are and not have to worry about losing their computer or forgetting to back up files. Even more importantly, they don’t want to spend hours configuring their computers to work with every new piece of hardware, or have to worry about constant software updates.”

The new operating system will be based on Google’s 9-month-old web browser, Chrome. It is intended for use on netbooks, the smaller, cheaper, and scaled-down laptops that have become increasingly popular among both schools and consumers.

If Google delivers on its promise, the system could prove popular for schools. Quicker operating speeds, easier data access, and simpler setup and maintenance would be attractive to students and educators alike.

Persistent computer problems, such as an update that slows down performance speed or a browser that takes precious seconds to load once a computer is turned on, are counterproductive to using computers in the classroom, because instructional time is limited.

“We applaud Google’s move here,” said a spokeswoman for Intel, the company behind the Classmate PC–one of the first netbooks to appear on the market. Intel often works with Google on a variety of projects, including this one, she said. The company did not have any further comment.

Microsoft climbs aboard the internet software bandwagon

Microsoft’s next operating system, Windows 7, is being geared for netbooks as well as larger computers. And as part of its Office 2010 suite, which is expected to be available in the first half of 2010, Microsoft will offer web-based versions of its Office suite of programs free of charge to consumers–including Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and a note-taking program.

Office web applications will be available through Microsoft’s Windows Live service. Microsoft hopes to make money by using the free software to lead users to its ad-supported web sites, such as Bing, the revamped search engine it launched last month.

For businesses, Microsoft will host one internet version of Office from its own data centers, and it will charge companies a subscription fee that it has not yet announced. Companies with premium service contracts will have the option of running a second web-based version of Office from their own data centers at no extra cost. It was unclear as of press time whether schools would be charged for the same arrangement.

Google already offers web-based versions of its office productivity software free of charge to educators, including the Google Docs word processor. But having online access to familiar Office programs could be appealing to educators who have not had the time or the inclination to try other software.

What’s more, giving students Microsoft Office functionality on devices that normally could not run full versions of Office could pay off in a big way.

Currently, the Microsoft Live@edu program gives K-12 schools and higher-education institutions a set of free hosted and co-branded collaboration and communication tools. Schools have access to Windows Live Hotmail, a hosted eMail service, and Office Live Workspace, an online space to collaborate on Microsoft Office documents.

Similarly, Google Apps for Education is free for schools and universities. The service includes Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk, Google Sites, Google Docs, and Google Video, all using a school’s own domain. In addition, Google for Educators contains classroom activities and teacher guides for using a dozen Google applications in the curriculum. The web site links to all these applications from a single location.

Competition between software rivals heats up

The announcements by Google and Microsoft will give schools more software choices–and they’ve intensified a rivalry that has been growing for years.

Google intends to rely on help from the community of open-source programmers to develop its new Chrome operating system, which is expected to begin running netbook computers in the second half of 2010.

Google already has introduced an operating system for smart phones and other mobile devices, called Android, which vies against various other systems, including ones made by Microsoft and Apple Inc.

The Android system worked well enough to entice some computer makers to begin developing netbooks that will run on it. For instance, Acer Inc., one of the world’s largest PC makers, said in June it would make netbooks that run Android instead of Windows. Acer said Android would make the computers less expensive and possibly help them boot up faster.

In the past month or so, Microsoft has been winning positive reviews and picking up more users with the latest upgrade to its search engine, now called Bing. Microsoft is hailing the makeover with a $100 million marketing campaign as it seeks to challenge Google’s dominance in web searching.

Microsoft has drawn much of its power–and profits–from the Windows operating system that has steered most personal computers for the past two decades.

Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, and its co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have not concealed their disdain for Windows.

Schmidt maintains Microsoft sometimes unfairly rigs its operating system to limit consumer choices–something that Microsoft has consistently denied doing. Google fears Microsoft could limit access to its search engine and other products if Windows is set up to favor Microsoft products.

Despite its own power and prominence, Google won’t have an easy time changing the status quo that has governed personal computing.

As an example of how difficult it is to topple a long-established market leader, Google estimates about 30 million people are now using its Chrome browser–a small fraction of those that rely on Microsoft’s market-leading Internet Explorer. And there have been various attempts to develop open-source software to undermine Windows on PCs, with relatively little effect.

Links:

Windows Live for Education

Google Apps for Education