With the announcement, Microsoft could strike a blow against Google, which has offered a similar suite of free online tools for schools.

In a back-to-school move that could be the large company equivalent of distinguishing who has the cooler Trapper Keeper, Microsoft has released a free version of Office 365 for education, a cloud-based suite of tools that includes Office applications such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, as well as Exchange Online for eMail, SharePoint Online for collaborating, and more—rivaling Google’s education cloud.

Office 365, which Microsoft introduced last year, now is available free of charge to students, teachers, and faculty, the company said. Upgraded packages are available for a fee, including unlimited eMail storage, archiving, and hosted voice mail support.

With the announcement, Microsoft likely aims to strike a blow against Google, which has offered a similar suite of free online tools for schools. Google Apps for Education have been adopted statewide in Oregon, Iowa, and Colorado, among other states, as a means of enabling students and teachers to share documents and collaborate on projects online.

According to Anthony Salcito, vice president of education for Microsoft’s Worldwide Public Sector business, whom eSchool News interviewed during the 2012 International Society for Technology in Education conference in San Diego, Office 365 is building off of Live@edu as the “next evolution” to provide a better experience for communication, collaboration, and productivity.

“We’re combining the security and richness of Microsoft with what the cloud can do natively,” said Salcito in the interview. “The cloud and online learning are key trends and opportunities to transform education today, and as schools face shrinking budgets and the pressure to innovate, we’re offering enterprise-quality technology for free that will modernize teaching practices and help prepare students for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Live@edu, which also was free to schools, included access to Office Live Workspace, a service for storing and sharing documents online. Certain functionalities were tied to a browser plug-in called Silverlight, though, which reduced the portability of the service when compared to other providers.

To access Live@edu workspaces directly from Office applications, users had to install an Office Live Update. Files couldn’t be edited from within a workspace, but clicking on “edit” would open them up in Microsoft Office.

In comparison, Office 365 offers a more robust computing experience, Salcito said. Giving students access to many Office-grade tools free of charge will allow them to use the tools so many companies use today, he said—providing them a “leg up” in the job market.