Microsoft releases Office 365 for Education

The cloud suite replaces Live@edu, so existing customers need to start planning their migrations

Microsoft will launch on Wednesday a version of its Office 365 cloud collaboration and communication suite that is specifically aimed at K-12 schools and universities.

Office 365 for Education replaces Live@edu, which will remain available for 18 more months to give its customers -- about 10,000 educational institutions with about 22 million students in about 130 countries -- a window for planning and carrying out the migration.

It remains to be seen how straightforward or complicated Live@edu customers will find the transition to Office 365 for Education.

Migrations to the business editions of Office 365, launched in mid-2011, have triggered complaints from customers of other Microsoft cloud suites Office 365 has replaced, including Office Live Small Business (OLSB) and Business Productivity Online Suite (BPOS).

Although Office 365 is a cloud-based suite, it can require upgrades to customers' PC and server software, as well as Internet domain and website transfers, depending on the case.

Microsoft already has information online about the migration process from Live@edu to Office 365 for Education.

The first thing to keep in mind is that while Live@edu and Office 365 for Education are conceptually designed to serve the same type of customer, they have several different components.

Live@edu, which is free, includes Outlook Live for email, Office Web Apps, Windows Live Messenger for instant messaging and Windows Live SkyDrive for 25 GB of online data storage.

Office 365 for Education comes in a variety of packages. The free, standard one, called A2, includes Exchange Online, Lync Online, SharePoint Online and Office Web Apps.

The Office 365 Exchange Online component is basically the same as Live@edu's Outlook Live, so transferring from one to the other should be fairly straightforward.

For that reason, it seems like the most automated migration option would be for Live@edu customers to move simply to what Microsoft calls Exchange Online Plan 1, an option limited to e-mail and calendar.

"The automated upgrade process will automatically subscribe you to Exchange Online Plan 1. This upgrade to Exchange Online Plan 1 is covered under your existing Live@edu terms of use, so no new service agreement is required," reads the main Microsoft webpage about Live@edu-to-Office 365 for Education migrations.

However, if a customer instead wants to adopt the A2 plan, which includes the online versions of Office, Lync and SharePoint, or the fee-based and more sophisticated A3 and A4 plans, they must sign a new Microsoft Online Services agreement or a current Volume Licensing Agreement.

Asked about the migration issue, Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's vice president of worldwide education, downplayed the possibility of problems, saying that the common element that needs to be transferred is Exchange, a process that involves little or no complication.

"We'll handle the heavy lifting," he said.

Live@edu users will be able to retain their SkyDrive accounts even after the suite is eliminated, Salcito said.

Existing Live@edu domains will be converted to Office 365 domains during the transition.

"Any domain that is currently enrolled in Live@edu cannot be enrolled directly in Office 365: it must go through the upgrade process. You can't combine domains from separate Office 365 subscriptions, so all domains that you want in Office 365 should be set up as accepted domains in your Live@edu subscription prior to upgrade," reads the Microsoft transition webpage.

At the end user level, the upgrade will leave them each with two accounts: an Office 365 account used to access all Office 365 services, including email, and a personal Windows Live account for accessing SkyDrive files and other Windows Live services such as Windows Live Instant Messenger, according to the company.

The Office 365 for Education Plan A2 includes the online version of Office 2010, called Office Web Apps, instant messaging and conferencing via Lync Online, collaboration capabilities via SharePoint Online, email and calendar via Exchange Online, antivirus and anti-spam protection and individual storage.

Plan A3 costs US$2.50 per student per month, and $4.50 per faculty/staff per month, and includes everything in Plan A2 plus additional components, including the full-featured desktop version of Office 2010 Professional Plus and voice mail service. Plan A4, at $3 per month per student and $6 per month per faculty/staff, adds voice communications.

Microsoft is also announcing several Office 365 for Education customers, including Dartmouth College, which will roll out the suite for 10,000 students, faculty and staff; Cornell University, which plans to deploy it in the fall for 7,000 faculty and staff; the Fresno Unified School District, which will adopt Exchange Online for 74,000 students and 12,000 faculty and staff; and Gonzaga University, where 8,000 students and 1,200 faculty and staff will get access to the suite.

In May, Microsoft announced that about 4.5 million Catholic school students will get access to Office 365 for Education as part of a 3-year deal the software vendor struck with the Catholic International Education Office (OIEC). This deal's scope could later be expanded to include all 43 million students at 210,000 Catholic schools in 102 countries.

Microsoft is locked in a battle with Google and other solid competitors in the cloud-based enterprise email and collaboration market, where Google Apps has been available since 2006 and also features a free version aimed at the education market.

Microsoft leads the on-premises enterprise email and collaboration market, but is having to fight tooth-and-nail to defend its turf as customers opt to switch to a cloud-based model for this software.

Microsoft critics have said that it took the company too long to come out with Office 365, giving Google and others opportunity to encroach on its stomping ground. BPOS, which Office 365 is replacing for businesses, lacked Office software, featured Lync's predecessor and its SharePoint and Exchange components were based on the 2007 versions of the products.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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