Taking a Look at some educational tools available combining use with gmail:
Exchange 2010 - When combined with a Microsoft Desktop, the eCAL, and the extreme discounts afforded to education, there simply was no better combination.
Zimbra - Close second, but to get something that competed with Exchange you had to go with Zimbra Pro (I think it was called Enterprise before VMware purchased it). But the education discounts were not very good to be perfectly honest and the collaboration part would have cost just as much as our end to end Microsoft platform.
Google - Tied with Microsoft Live@EDU. I have a love/hate relationship with Google. They are becoming the new Microsoft from 15 years ago which is dissappointing. I like their tools, but increasingly to get the full google experience you need all things google which essentially means Chrome. I feel like shortly they will start making things only work on ChromeOS or Android forcing people to move away from Microsoft and Apple. The two biggest issues we had though was the poor integration with Active Directory (and the moving "student data" into the cloud), and at the time we were doing the evaluation google had experienced several large scale public outages.
Microsoft Live@EDU - Essentially this reduced to hosted exchange. We might actually still move out students into this in some sort of co-hosted (staff in house, students in the cloud) model, but there was no significant cost savings. There still isn't much cost savings to move out students to the cloud because administration would still be the same, and only a tiny incremental portion of hardware would be saved.
One must as a rule in the Tech department to get Chrome out as as standard, or at least a dual standard. There are now active directory extensions so it can be managed almost as well as IE8/9, and with a competent tech group there are not many applications that must run in IE (some activeX sites still require it). There is little reason to not run two browsers *if* you can educate your end users. Right now we run Firefox and IE, but we are about to stop supporting Firefox and swap it with Chrome. Our education push happens later this fall.
As for using IE with gmail, We have not found any problems at all. Disabling compatibility view pretty much resolves any issues at all, and make sure your flash and java are current is all that should be required. I have found that some VLC plugins have recently been causing me grief with Chrome indirectly causing Flash to crash, but I don't quite understand why. I can repeat this with tools like uStream on demand,,, removing VLC resolves it.
Finally, people should considered the actual Gmail tips? They have some pretty good stuff on there, not to mention the icons for the ninja make people smile every time. :)
Has anyone looked at Karoshi Linux, Moodle or Joomla recently?
Karoshi Linux (now the Linux Schools Project) http://www.linuxgfx.co.uk/demo.html has been around for quite a while, comes with a rather full & integrated suite of features, driven by LDAP, with a Samba PDC to support Windows clients, It sports Moodle, Joomla and standard e-mail. Moodle has all manner of integration modules written for it. Is this not groupware-ish enough for a stand-alone school, or even a small school district?
Now, I'm curious what features Exchange and Zimbra provide that add value to the process flow of an edu organization besides the functional equivalent of email & scheduling. Are the needs pretty basic, or is it the drive for customization that leads bigger schools to big packages with big support?
Also.... at what scale is this discussion? If we're talking an entire school district, then Microsoft pretty much has the school district market sewn up with their discounting & the typical IT budgets of a municipal school district.
For smaller- to-mid-sized individual, independent schools, it used to not be cost effecting to become a Microsoft shop (w/ the lack of per-seat discounts afforded the district-scale organizations). MS changed their site & district pricing to accommodate smaller districts and/or independent schools.
There's so much that could and should be done, but the sad state of primary & secondary education IT is stuck in a short-sighted quagmire. The small schools can't afford the help to drive innovation, the bigger schools just throw money at the problem.