Microsoft motors ahead in education race, but Google still in it

Redmond's education push gains momentum as global network of Catholic schools signs up, but analysts reckon Google can catch up by improving user experience and product integration.
Written by Ryan Huang, Contributor

Microsoft has announced a tie-up with the Catholic International Education Office (OIEC) to provide it with cloud-based software and services for its network of schools. This gives Redmond's push into the education space more momentum, but analysts say Google can still can catch up in this space by leveraging social network elements and integrating its services.

In a press release on Thursday, Microsoft announced it had entered into an alliance with OIEC, which would see it provide its Office 365 for the latter's community of Catholic schools worldwide "as part of a new social network for Catholic education".

"This will begin with the provision of software for 4.5 million students as part of a three-year alliance plan but, in time, has the potential to scale across OIEC's community of more than 43 million Catholic students at 210,000 schools, in 102 countries," the software giant said in the statement.

F. Angel Astorgano, general secretary of OIEC, noted in the release: "In partnership with Microsoft, we are entering a new era in global Catholic education. We will offer the most advanced technology, knowledge and skills to our schools so that our next generation of graduates is prepared for the new challenges of the 21st century."

Tighter hold over education space
This latest partnership follows the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) decision to adopt Microsoft's Live@edu cloud service. Microsoft's products would be deployed to over seven million students and nearly 500,000 staff members--making the Indian government agency Redmond's biggest cloud customer.

Redond noted that it currently has over 22 million users worldwide on its Live@edu cloud suite for education. This compares with more than 16 million students, faculty, and staff worldwide using Google Apps for Education, according to a Google spokesperson.

One advantage the software giant has over its rival is its legacy systems, commented Richard Edwards, principal analyst at Ovum.

"It has an installed user base. There is a hurdle of 15 to 20 years of legacy systems for any other vendor to overcome," he elaborated, adding that some schools and organizations would be concerned with file compatibility issues should they migrate to other systems.

Pranabesh Nath, industry manager for ICT Practice in Asia-Pacific at Frost & Sullivan, agreed. "The Microsoft service is familiar to users of its software products, can integrate well with the same, and is part of its larger Office 365 platform. This comprehensive portfolio makes it very compelling over what Google can offer currently," he said.

"For many users a change from the Microsoft to a completely different one such as Google can be disconcerting," he added.

The Frost & Sullivan industry manager noted that Microsoft's success was surprising for one reason, though. "A few years ago, many government departments, including the Indian government, were advocating the use of open source solutions for productivity, communications and the like. A change from this strategy is welcome news for Microsoft in the next few years," he added.

Neil Jackson, director of education for Asia-Pacific at Microsoft, explained that it worked with governments and educational organizations worldwide without targeting any specific region or market.

"With that said, we are seeing more interest from emerging markets as governments are increasingly looking at innovation as a key driver of economic growth. Investing heavily in education is a key strategy to drive innovation and Microsoft possesses a comprehensive commitment to education across all the company's products and programs, as well as seamless interoperation with the entire Microsoft product portfolio," Jackson said.

Google needs product integration
However, Edwards noted that it was still early days in the education sector and Google can still play catch up.

"Both numbers of users across Microsoft and Google still make up 'a small pie', and there are still many new accounts out there to win," he said, adding that there was also a "great opportunity" for other vendors such as Apple to muscle in.

The Ovum analyst also pointed out that Google should look at driving the end user experience for its products, something which Microsoft has not been completely successful with.

Nath noted that a matching portfolio was important too. "While applications such as e-mail are basic and must be provided, Google can bolster its portfolio by integrating other services into the mix, and Android comes to mind. Microsoft doesn't have a very good answer in this segment yet and this is something Google should take advantage of," he noted.

A Google spokesperson clarified the company's stance on its cloud product. He said: "We are interested in promoting online tools for educational purposes, including collaboration and communication. Our tools help universities save money, professors organize and streamline their classes, and students work efficiently and collaborate with their peers and teachers."

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