Google and Microsoft stepped up their student-oriented programs.

Google and Microsoft stepped up their student-oriented programs.

It might not be on par with the infamous platform wars between Microsoft and Apple that have spanned three decades–at least, not yet–but the rivalry between technology giants Microsoft and Google heated up significantly during the past year, with schools and their students as key beneficiaries.

Aiming to capture the loyalty of a future generation of computer users, both companies now offer cloud-based communication and productivity software to schools free of charge. It’s an offer that many schools and colleges acted on this year as they struggled to balance their budgets.

Microsoft’s Live@edu program gives K-12 schools and colleges a set of free hosted and co-branded collaboration and communication tools that include 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 colleges. 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.

Converting to Microsoft or Google eMail systems is saving some large colleges and universities upwards of half a million dollars annually, and the move has satisfied some students and faculty members who have clamored for an eMail interface with more applications and storage capability.

The competition between Google and Microsoft to convert the nation’s schools and colleges to their free hosted eMail and other IT services “is a proxy war for what’s occurring in the commercial environment,” Matt Cain, lead eMail analyst for the research firm Gartner, told the San Jose Mercury News in early December. And the rivalry doesn’t stop at eMail, either.

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

The rivalry extends to web searching, too: Aiming to make a dent in Google’s search-engine dominance, Microsoft last spring launched a redesigned search site, called Bing, that gives internet users a new option for online research.

Live@edu and Google Apps for Education aren’t the only programs from Microsoft and Google intended to cultivate future brand loyalty among young software users. In March, Microsoft said it would offer professional-grade developing software such as Visual Studio and XNA Game Studio to high school students free of charge, a service it previously had offered to college students through its DreamSpark program. Google, meanwhile, has rolled out a student ambassador program that recruits software enthusiasts to evangelize its array of applications on more than 60 college campuses.

Related links:

Microsoft offers free tools for high schoolers

Schools turn to hosted eMail to save money

Microsoft takes on Google in web search

Google Wave has great potential for education

Google Maps snaps views from college campuses

Software rivalry gives students more choices

Microsoft motivates innovative teachers

Gmail outage won’t dissuade colleges

Google unveils tool to annotate web sites

Blackboard works on Google integration

College road trip for Microsoft’s research chief

Google publishes Stanford dissertations online

Students spread the Google gospel

Microsoft, Google in battle to win over students