Google's 17 Million Built-in Chrome OS Users

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Google’s got a not-so-secret weapon in its bid to convert the world to applications such as Gmail, Google Docs, Google Talk, Google Sites and, soon, Google’s Chrome operating system: the 17 million college students on more than 4,000 campuses across the country.

For more than two years, Google has approached colleges and universities with a near-unbeatable offer: provide unlimited hosted e-mail and other applications, all branded by the institution and delivered free of charge.

Now those efforts are starting to bear fruit. The search giant is providing those services to 4 million students at colleges and universities and is signing up new campuses at a rate of 70 to 75 a quarter, effectively taking over a huge chunk of their IT costs. The pitch is particularly attractive as universities labour under tougher economic conditions and to accommodate students that increasingly come in expecting access to advanced (and free) communications technologies.

 Ad Age Digital  DigitalNext  MediaWork The campus push is part of Google’s broader bid to breed a generation of workers comfortable with the concept of “cloud” computing, and particularly Google’s version of it, where Google provides free web-based services in exchange for advertising dollars. “We want to build relationships with these users for life,” said Jeff Keltner, Google’s business development manager for the program.

Notre Dame University flipped to Google a year ago when its e-mail vendor stopped supporting its system and eight candidates for student government ran on a platform urging the campus to adopt Google.

Saving money and resources
“It gives the university the opportunity to offload services that are straining monetary and staffing resources,” said Notre Dame IT manager Katie Rose. “The students are familiar with the services so it requires a lot less training and hand-holding to show them what they’ve got.”

Google’s main competition on campus is Microsoft, and while the market isn’t lucrative for either, it represents a bit of a backdoor raid on Microsoft’s core business. Google and Microsoft have taken big swings at each other; Google by building an operating system for netbooks for release next year, and Microsoft by committing billions of dollars of investment to its search engine, Bing.

On campus, Google is making inroads. In its annual study of the role of technology on campus, the Campus Computing Project found that two-fifths of participating campuses had either migrated to outsourced e-mail and services or planned to. Of those, 56.5% opted for Google, 38.4% for Microsoft and 4.8% for Zimbra, an open-source software maker owned by Yahoo.

Microsoft is taking the threat very seriously. Chief Operating Officer Kevin Turner told Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference Wednesday it is increasing partner spending from $2.9 billion to $3.3 billion this year to beat back the threat of Google Apps to its enterprise software business.

Google doesn’t even insert advertising into the services, as it does in Gmail for non-campus users. E-mail is branded by the university and incoming students can keep their Gmail addresses and can add a campus address. Keltner said Google considers the market so important it would gladly provide (and pay for) hosted applications for all universities in the U.S. and elsewhere, if it could.

The University of Massachusetts, with its 19,000 students, just flipped. So far in the third quarter, Google has signed up Wake Forest, Cornell, the University of Alabama, Boise State, Clemson, the University of Minnesota and Temple. It has also just expanded the program to recruit K-12 school systems.

There have been some hiccups. The faculty at Canada’s Lakehead University contested the school’s switch in court, alleging it would expose university communications to U.S. anti-terrorism law, but an arbitrator ruled against the challenge.

The perceived danger of shifting services to the “cloud” was illustrated by the hacking of the accounts of several Twitter founders, revealing confidential documents and business plans. Notre Dame’s Ms. Rose said that doesn’t change her view on the security of Google services. “We have strong password policies and password ageing policies to protect information appropriately,” she said. “It’s up to the company to make their policies adequate.”

The benefits, she said, are hard to ignore. Notre Dame saved an estimated $1.5 million by not replacing their old e-mail system, and help-desk calls are down 20% among the university’s 12,000 students and 6,000 faculty.

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