Google's announcement this month that it had signed up another five U.S. universities to use its free Google Apps hosted software sounds like good news for software-as-a-service fans hoping for the emergence of real competition for Microsoft Office.
But scratch below the surface, and Google Apps is making less headway than it appears. According to interviews with university technology administrators as well as other reports, the universities cited by Google as adopting the Google Apps Education Edition are mostly interested in Gmail, along with related communication and collaboration services such as Google Talk instant messaging and Google Calendar.
While some say they plan to test out Google Docs and Spreadsheets -- the search giant's online equivalents to Microsoft Word and Excel -- none have so far indicated any plans to kick out Microsoft Office.
"We are not currently interested in replacing any current services with any Google offerings but Gmail," said Gloria Edwards Thornton, an assistant vice chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
The university right now is running a 25-student pilot of Gmail that it plans to expand to all UNCG students by October. If successful, the university may switch all of its students off its current e-mail system -- a non-Microsoft vendor Thornton declined to disclose -- to Gmail by the fall of 2008.
In the meantime, the university is continuing with its Microsoft upgrade plans unabated. It rolled out Office 2007 to "a positive response." The university also plans to roll out Windows Vista sometime next year.
At Clemson University, all students will be getting Google accounts by the end of the year, according to CIO Jim Bottum.
Moreover, "discussions are under way" to integrate Google Apps, which students will be able to use without seeing the contextual ads Google normally inserts, into curriculum and other academic processes, Bottum said.
At the same time, Clemson's adoption of Google Apps isn't halting its plans to upgrade to Office 2007, Bottum said, citing "heavy student use" of Office. And it will also upgrade to Exchange 2007, which Clemson put in for administrators but is catching on with other departments, too.
Other U.S. universities Google recently announced as customers include the University of Texas at San Antonio, Arkansas State University and Kennesaw State University in Georgia.
They join colleges such as Arizona State University, which began adopting Google Apps last year.
All ASU students now have their own personalized Google start page, from which they can access Google Maps of ASU, check their Gmail, and use Google Docs and Spreadsheets to create and share documents, according to an ASU spokeswoman.
ASU has shifted more than 50,000 users from its homegrown e-mail system and another portal software package to Google Apps. The university has saved half a million dollars while experiencing no major service outages, she said.
But even at ASU, Google Apps has not replaced Microsoft Office or Windows in any way, she said.
Another early convert to Google Apps, Northwestern University, is moving students only to Gmail, Google Talk and Google Calendar, according to an undated video interview hosted on Google's site.
None of this surprises Mark Levitt, an analyst at IDC.
"Can Google offer something truly compelling that displaces Microsoft Office? Today they don't," he said. Even though students are quick learners of new technology, the inertia from Office's huge, entrenched user base remains a powerful disincentive to dumping Office altogether, he said.
"People are so heavily dependent on assuming they can share documents" without problems, he said. "Individuals might make the emotional decision to switch off Office, but most companies say it's not worth the incompatibility risk."
And while Google Apps is free to both universities and students -- a fact that would seem to be a powerful incentive -- Microsoft long ago took steps to keep price-sensitive students in the fold with hefty academic discounts.
One Clemson student told Ars Technica that he recently paid just US$12 for a copy of Office 2007 through his university's academic discount program with Microsoft.