Google and Microsoft Stage Dueling Bus Tours to Promote College E-Mail

October 03, 2008

Both Google and Microsoft took road trips to college campuses last month as they escalated their battle over who provides e-mail and other services to campuses.

More than 100 colleges have outsourced their student e-mail services to either Google or to Microsoft since the two companies began offering college-focused deals two years ago. The colleges pay nothing—often saving them tens of thousands of dollars a year by turning off their own student e-mail services—and the companies get the chance to hook students on their products.

Google sent a modified school bus—painted white and accented with the company's logo—to about a dozen campuses where it also staged demonstrations of its various services as part of its "App to School" tour. All of the colleges had already signed up for the company's college e-mail program, which it calls Google Apps for Education. Students at those colleges still have e-mail addresses ending in the college's name and ".edu" at the end, but the accounts are run through Google's Gmail system. A major goal of the tour was to show students that there's more to the service than e-mail (like Google's online word processor and its calendar).

Microsoft, meanwhile, didn't use an actual bus, but it did send a trunk full of equipment to 13 campuses for its "See for Yourself College Tour." The company picked some campuses that have signed up for its Live@Edu e-mail service, as its college e-mail program is called, and other colleges that are considering it.

Both companies gave away plenty of T-shirts and other goodies to students who sat through their technology demonstrations.

Connecting With Customers

The Chronicle checked out the Google bus while it was stopped at George Washington University last week. It was fitted with a giant flat-panel television in the back and a video-game system running the popular game Rock Band. A couple of students sat in brightly-colored beanbag chairs while playing for a few minutes, and they were invited to write happy messages to Google on a whiteboard on the wall.

"We really wanted to spend some time where the rubber hits the road and connect with users—What are students, what are professors actually doing with it?—and show some things we know that they could be doing with it," said Jeff Keltner, Google's manager of collaboration products for education.

One student who checked out the bus was Alex Sofianos, a freshman at George Washington. He said he was happy to switch from the campus's old system, known as Colonial Mail. "It looked just archaic—it looks like they hadn't updated it in 10 years," he said. The old campus-mail system wouldn't let him forward messages to his iPhone, he said, but Gmail does. He added, though, that many of his fellow students probably "don't know the difference and don't really care" what e-mail service the university uses.

Microsoft didn't notify The Chronicle of its tour until after it had rolled through the University of Maryland at College Park, the nearest it came to our offices in Washington, so we didn't get to check it out in person. But officials said that they set up tents where representatives showed off the company's Xbox video-game system, its Zune media player, and other products, in addition to the company's online calendar and other Web services that integrate with its e-mail system.

Microsoft is respected in boardrooms but has not always garnered deep affection from consumers, said Prasid Pathak, Microsoft's "student-lifestyle marketing manager." He said the college tour is part of the company's effort to win the affections of the college set. "It's going to be a brand that gets more consumer love in the future," he said.

Colleges Weigh Options

Some colleges are still taking a look at both companies' offerings and deciding whether to get on board.

The University of Chicago is among the undecideds. Gregory A. Jackson, a university vice president and chief information officer, said. that "the great preponderance" of colleges have chosen Google but that Microsoft is getting more interest lately. Chicago's final decision, he said, will come down to the specific contract details the companies end up offering. And the university might create a hybrid system in which e-mail starts on campus but then is forwarded to Google or Microsoft, so that the university does not give up complete control of the service.

Brian Cohen, chief information officer of the City University of New York, said the university was one of the first to sign with Microsoft, and it has been happy with the experience so far. He said that the university already had a close relationship with Microsoft and that it considered the company a trusted partner. But it agreed to sign up only after top officials at the company convinced university officials that it was committed to the idea and wouldn't just drop it a few years down the line.

"We actually had a telephone conference call with Steve Ballmer," said Mr. Cohen, referring to Microsoft's chief executive. The university now has 160,000 student accounts using the Microsoft service.

Wendy Woodward, director of technology-support services at Northwestern University, said the university signed up with Google's service a little over a year ago. She said that many students were already forwarding their university mail to personal Gmail accounts and that there is no way the university could afford to offer the amount of services that Google gives consumers for free.

Northwestern picked Google over Microsoft, she said, after a survey found that 90 percent of its students already had Gmail accounts. "Gmail was the winner on our campus just to start with," she said.