About 4.5 million Catholic school students to get Office 365

The deal between Microsoft and the Catholic Church could be escalated later to include 43 million students

About 4.5 million Catholic school students will get access to Microsoft's Office 365 cloud e-mail and collaboration suite as part of a 3-year deal the software vendor struck with the Catholic International Education Office (OIEC).

The scope of the agreement could later be expanded to include all 43 million students at 210,000 Catholic schools in 102 countries, Microsoft said on Thursday.

The OIEC expects that with Office 365 students will be able to collaborate on projects, jointly edit documents, communicate via e-mail, IM and video conferencing, and create and maintain websites. The agreement also calls for Microsoft to design an Azure-based social network for Catholic schools called Social Network of Catholic Education. Tralcom, based in Mexico, will be the deal's supporting technology partner.

The students will use Office 365 for Education, a version of the suite tailored for schools and universities that will become generally available this summer, replacing Microsoft's free cloud-based suite for schools and universities Live@Edu, according to the company.

Microsoft is in a dogfight with Google in the cloud-based enterprise e-mail and collaboration market, where Google Apps has been available since 2006. Google Apps also has a special version for the education vertical which is free. Although Microsoft dominates the on-premise enterprise e-mail and collaboration market, it is facing competition from Google and others as more and more customers opt to switch to a cloud-based model for this software.

In this war, it's very important for Microsoft and Google to nab educational institutions as customers. Those students become familiar from early on with either Office 365 or Google Apps, creating in them a potential preference for one or the other. Once they enter the workplace, their opinions about the suites may help influence their employers' decisions in this area.

To date, Live@Edu's customer base includes 22 million students, teachers and administrators in about 10,000 schools in more than 130 countries.

Office 365 for Education will be available in three editions. Plan A2 is free and includes the online version of Office 2010, called Office Web Apps, instant messaging and conferencing via Lync Online, collaboration capabilities via SharePoint Online, e-mail and calendar via Exchange Online, anti-virus 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.

It's not clear which Office 365 for Education plan the OIEC will choose for its students.

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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