Yesterday evening, Microsoft announced at the 2009 Annual Educause Conference that they would be rolling out SharePoint-based collaboration and productivity services for universities via Live@edu. While this news arrived quietly at a conference to which collaboration software vendor strategists rarely pay attention, it is potentially game changing in the collaboration platform space. Let me say that again: the fact that Microsoft is getting SharePoint in the hands of the future business leaders of America (and beyond) during their formative years is potentially HUGE. But let’s back up for a second and bring everyone up to speed. For those unfamiliar, Live@edu is Microsoft’s hosted email and collaboration suite targeted at universities. It’s a free service that in the last four months saw over 5,000 schools sign up. One of the underlying goals of Live@edu is to get college students ready for the real world by letting them play with Microsoft tools in college. This last point – training students on Microsoft software – is what makes SharePoint’s inclusion in the offering so important.

In a time when we hear so much about consumerization and business units starting to assert control in technology purchase decisions, smart vendor strategists find a way to endear themselves to business end users. It’s something that consumer-oriented companies transitioning to the enterprise, like Google, have already mastered. In the collaboration realm, SharePoint is king of the platforms, but its reputation among users hasn’t always been great: We’ve heard a range of complaints concerning usability and functionality. And while some of these things are technical hiccups that are cured with each new release of the product, there are others that can probably be chalked up to users not being properly trained on the software (and not particularly interested in taking the time to learn). In rolling out a SharePoint-based service to its Live@edu customers, Microsoft is making a bet: if they can get students comfortable with SharePoint at 18, they’ll be more than willing to use it in their first job at 21. Not a bad thought, and something that is working for other providers of SaaS collaboration and productivity tools like Google and Zoho. If successful, they could create a groundswell of demand for SharePoint as waves of college graduates weened on their products enter the workforce and look for SharePoint collaboration. This would cover Microsoft's flank against consumerized offerings that have, on occasion, become enterprise-wide solutions (see SAP's adoption of CubeTree). But can Microsoft really capture the hearts and minds of the youth in a manner similar to those other vendors?

Well, this all really depends on the success of Live@edu – and this is why I stressed the word “potential” before “game changing.” Microsoft faces stiff competition from Google and other smaller vendors in providing hosted email services to educational institutions. And there is no guarantee that students will embrace the SharePoint-based service simply because their school provides it. That being said, Microsoft is thinking in the right direct, and it’s something other large collaboration software vendors might want to contemplate; getting a foothold with information workers when they’re students could mean they will not stray when they are middle management.