I've been playing with Windows live, which given my interest in web 2.0 technologies kind of makes sense, but when you compare the environment with Google Apps or Zoho doesn't really.
Well we're in the participation age where we care and share. Seriously it's important, and we're investing a fair amount of effort in sakai as a collaboration platform to work arund the fact that Australia is on the dark side of the world, meaning that if we want to interact with people in northern hemisphere universities it's got to be asynchronous as they're asleep when we're awake, and vice versa. As I've said elsewhere it's the tyrrany of time zones.
Collaboration sites have also turned out to be relly useful for committees and projects - lodge the documents and other relevant information eg meetings notes on a closed site and a project can proceed really well, with everyone always having access to papers.
Anyway, while we can see the use of collaboration tools on both a wide and local area basis it does have implications for teaching and learning when students can share material easily and exhcnage documents really easily, not to mention publish things in blogs, and so on.
But they can do this any way, so rather than agonise let's embrace and pretend we're doing this to teach group working - certainly putting students in groups for assignments teaches management skills.
Anyway, enough of this. Google Apps and Zoho both provide a means to share documents as well as some document creating tools and some online storage. Makes sharing and publishing to the web easier, gives you access to your files anywhere you have a browser (as long as it's ie, or a mozilla variant like firefox, camino or icewasel), and makes it easy to email them.
Now, because we have labs full of computers that run software this doesn't seem so great a deal. If you don't however it's really useful - means all you need to access and modify your documents is a browser, which means that even with a web browser on a sun ray (or an old knackered mac G3) you can edit and share even if you don't have any of the standard tools. So like with thin client stuff, we're abstracted from making assumptions about the hardware.
Windows live is different. Sure you get web based email but a lot of the functionality is based on running lightweight desktop apps, which immediately starts making assumptions about host capability and capacity, and one's suddenly lost that martini (anywhere, any platform) capability. Though if you've a recent pc with xp or vista you probably don't care.
If you've a mac, or gasp, are running linux, you probably do.
So why the interest?
Both Google and Microsoft offer bundles to eductaional institutions, essentially allowing them to outsource their student email, and also to provide an alumni email service supported by ads. They also both provide calendaring. Given the cost of providing these services, outsourcing them effectively for free is an interesting option, especially as you can brand them your way.
Of course it's not free - there are network traffic implications and you need to maintain some infrastructure but it does mean the problem of providing student email goes away and they can easily keep ther account as an alumni. (If you make it difficult to get an alumni account students don't bother, they just use gmail, hotmail or yahoo with instant sign on and usability).
Now webmail is webmail, but probably you might have got the impression that I think Google Apps is possibly a better offering than Windows Live. Well I do, but given we'e already got a collaboration service in Sakai, everything outside of email becomes a nice to have rather a must have - so Google is ahead on points, not winning the race.
Microsoft's offering looks nicer (more facebook like - yes I'm playing with facebook as well to get my head round it), probably appeals better to less technical users, but again that's not a showstopper.
But Microsoft does have a potential show stopper - Exchange Labs which allows the integration of windows live email and calendaring with your local exchange installation. Given that a lot of universities have some sort of exchange deployment for staff (usually not students - too expensive in terms of infrastructure and licenses) this means that staff and students can share calndaring informtaion easily, making managing tutorials, assignment dates and meeting rooms and so on out of exchange really easy and potentially it just looks like one big exchange installation. That is interesting as suddenly a whole lot of calendar integration problems go away ...
Alternatives, such as Apple's new calendaring solution in leopard server and Bedework are untried, even though as standards based they should be easier to deal with. Google Calendar of course only does push and not sync out of the box although you can integrate other calendars abd use tools like spanning sync to sync back.
So if you wanted to make a decision on outsourcing student email and using either google apps or windows live as a platform to do so your two questions are:
- do you need a shared calendaring solution, and have thought through what you want it to do for you?
- do you want exchange integration and why?