There’s a growing trend towards “hosted” software — saving money on hardware and IT expenses by letting someone else host your software on their servers. Now, Yahoo-owned Zimbra is getting into the act. For universities, it’s offering a hosted version of its email and collaboration software. Similar offerings for other Zimbra customers, such as small businesses and government agencies, will probably follow.

The educational market already accounts for 2 million of the more than 20 million mailboxes that Zimbra provides, and Marketing Vice President John Robb says there are already 200,000 university mailboxes signed up for Zimbra’s hosted product. Some of those come from entirely new customers, such as Kansas State University and Kaplan. In other cases, universities may already use Zimbra for, say, student emails, but are taking advantage of the reduced cost to add alumni accounts, too.

For the end users, the experience should be identical, but for universities a hosted product will be cheaper and easier to manage — there’s even a free version of alumni and student accounts, where Zimbra’s revenue comes from co-branding and advertising. Otherwise, those hosted mailboxes will cost $2 per year, while faculty mailboxes will cost $35 per year.

VentureBeat Editor Matt Marshall has already written about how Zimbra’s features “put Outlook to shame.” By going hosted, Zimbra is also becoming a more direct competitor with Google Apps. In that contest, Zimbra has the advantage of being open source and brandable by its customers, as well as offering a complementary desktop product.

Previously, some of the company’s partners offered a hosted version Zimbra software, but this is Zimbra’s first foray into the hosted model on its own. Robb said this is just Zimbra’s first move in this direction. He didn’t offer many more details, but he said that when Zimbra was looking at Yahoo’s acquisition offer last year, this strategy was definitely on its collective mind. So it was a plus that joining Yahoo would give Zimbra “access to world-class data centers,” he said.

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