PALO ALTO, Calif. – Google Inc., (GOOG) a company synonymous with searching the Internet, hopes to define far more of the world's computing experience with a helping hand from schoolchildren.
For several months, it has been giving away to all takers an online word processor, spreadsheet and other programs that can perform tasks usually handled by desktop software.
Offering a convenience that worries some privacy experts, the programs automatically store everything in Google's vast data centers so the information can be retrieved on any Internet-connected computer.
As it tries to usher in a new era in computing, Google is promoting its software applications in kindergarten through high school classrooms, where kids who have grown up with the Web are more likely to experiment with different technology.
"It's the perfect place for them to target the next generation of computer users," said James McQuivey, a former Forrester Research analyst who is now a Boston University professor specializing in technology and communications.
The free-software approach poses a challenge to Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), whose success revolves around sales of its long-dominant Windows operating system and Office suite.
The programs — including Word and Excel — are installed on hard drives and information is usually stored locally as well.
Google views its educational initiative as a public service for teachers who often lack the money and expertise to introduce more technological tools into their classrooms.
The company doesn't allow advertising in its word processing and spreadsheets programs, leaving it unclear how Google expects to make money.
"We think it's good to get people familiar with the other things we do [besides search], but it's not like we are trying to get some kind of lifetime value out of each student," said Cristin Frodella, a Google product manager overseeing the education project.
"We just want to help teachers engage kids with technology that makes learning seem less like drudgery."
Google is trying to engage the teachers first.
In October, the company posted an online guide to provide instructors with ideas on how to incorporate the applications into their curricula.
In November, Google invited about 50 Northern California teachers to spend the day at its Mountain View headquarters to learn more about the advantages of the program.
Google plans to host similar programs in other parts of the country as it tries to recruit more teachers to proselytize its online software.
Some students are already learning about the advantages of Google's word processing program, which enables people in different locations to collaborate simultaneously or view and edit documents at different times.
Palo Alto High School junior Danielle Kim said that flexibility was particularly helpful when her debate team jointly worked on a presentation earlier this year. But she also saw a downside to Google's approach.
"It requires you to have Internet access," she said. "What happens when you are in a place that doesn't?"
Google expects that issue to become less of a problem as high-speed Internet connections become as commonplace as electrical outlets. Wireless access would enable information to be delivered to cell phones and other mobile devices as well as PCs and cable boxes.
The company is betting heavily that this vision will become reality.
In this year alone, Google is expected to spend about $2 billion on various projects, including a data center sprawling across the equivalent of two football fields about 80 miles east of Portland, Ore.
The computers will do more than just index the Web and process the billions of search requests that pour into Google each month. Google wants its vast network to become a storehouse of software applications and personal information for millions of people no longer tethered to a single computer.
That ambition already has triggered alarms among privacy experts worried about so much personal information being entrusted to a single business.
Even if Google stands by its promise to protect its users' information, there are no guarantees that mischief-making computer hackers or crusading government agencies won't eventually try to pry into the database, said Lauren Weinstein, co-founder of People for Internet Responsibility.
"When data is sitting on computers other than your own, it becomes a very tempting target," he said. "I have no problems at all with Google's motivation because I really do believe they want to protect their users' privacy. But I think they are creating something that will have the vultures circling."
Despite those concerns, having Google automatically store important documents appeals to absent-minded students like Palo Alto High junior Ryan Drebin.
"I am always losing my flash drive anyway," he said, referring to a small portable memory chip.
Palo Alto High, located in an affluent city five miles from Google's headquarters, has become one of the main testing grounds for the company's educational push. That's because Esther Wojcicki teaches English and journalism there.
Wojcicki first met Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998 when they started the company in the garage of her daughter's Silicon Valley home. She has stayed in touch with them ever since and is a consultant on the current education project.
"I feel like I am on the edge of something really exciting and perhaps classroom changing," Wojcicki said. "Using this as a teaching tool, I will be able to look at students' papers and make suggestions before they even turn it in."
Not all of Wojcicki's students like the idea of giving their teacher an advance peek at their assignments.
"Everyone procrastinates on their homework to some extent. The teacher doesn't need to see that," said Katie Barich, a senior in Wojcicki's journalism class.
Google isn't the first high-tech company to use education as a marketing tool. In the most conspicuous example, Apple Computer Inc. (AAPL) has positioned its Macintoshes as a student's best friend for the past 20 years.
Despite those efforts, the Mac holds a U.S. market share of just 6 percent, with virtually everything else going to Windows-based personal computers.
Unlike Apple's computers or Microsoft's programs, Google's software is free — an enticement that gives it a built-in advantage, especially in schools hard-pressed to buy enough computers, let alone software licenses, to accommodate students.
"There is such a big digital divide out there that products like this really help level the playing field for these kids," said Lucy Gray, who teaches sixth graders at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
Microsoft offers a discounted version of Office to students and teachers for $149 — significantly less than the $400 for the full standard edition.
But free software is tough to beat. Wojcicki spent about $4,400 to license 70 copies of Microsoft Word earlier this year, before Google launched its educational push.
Other instructors who have been experimenting with Google's software don't think Microsoft has anything to worry about.
Microsoft so far as brushed off Google's alternative software as niche applications unlikely to gain mass appeal. At the same time, though, Microsoft has been introducing more online versions of its software applications just in case the phenomenon takes off.
"I don't think people are going to stop using Word because of this," said Rebecca Altamirano, who helps prepare students for college at East Palo Alto Academy High School. "[Google's software] will be more of a supplement, a critical addition that has been missing from classrooms."