Google Inc., 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., 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 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 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.
The computers will do more than 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.