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Microsoft is meeting with hundreds of public officials in Redmond starting this morning for its U.S. Public Sector CIO Summit, trying to make inroads for Windows 8, Office 365 and other new products from the company.

Curt Kolcun and Laura Ipsen at Microsoft’s U.S. Public Sector CIO Summit.

The conference comes as Google Apps and Apple’s iPad make progress at schools and public agencies, creating new competition for Windows, Office and more of Microsoft’s traditional products.

Schools and public agencies are two of the places where Microsoft is playing catch-up vs. the iPad in the tablet market. Windows 8 and Windows RT, released last fall, are the centerpiece of the company’s tablet strategy, but Microsoft is still trying to gain traction on that front in general.

The other challenge for Microsoft and other tech vendors is widespread budget constraints among U.S. public agencies, putting tech upgrades on the back burner.

At the opening session, Microsoft executives pitched attendees on the consistency and familiarity of the interface across Microsoft’s platforms — from Windows Phone to Windows 8 — in addition to cloud integration and the ability to centrally manage large deployments of Windows machines. The company also sought to differentiate its tablet strategy, saying it allows for not just consumption but also productivity.

“Yes, we realize that you’ll have other devices in your environment … but Microsoft is uniquely positioned” in many of those areas, said Curt Kolcun, vice president of Microsoft’s public sector business.

windows8Microsoft’s Laura Ipsen, corporate vice president of the company’s worldwide public sector group, concluded the first session with a thinly veiled dig at Google: “We don’t spend our time thinking about what data we can collect on a person and how we can monetize that. We think about what data you need.”

The company also announced a series of new customer wins in the public sector. The city of Kansas City; Seattle; King County; Dupage County, Ill.; the University of Miami; Sacramento State and others have signed on to deploy Office 365, the company’s subscription-based Microsoft Office service.

Microsoft says more than 1 million U.S. government workers are moving to Office 365.

Erin Devoto, the city of Seattle’s CTO, says the city had been planning to move to Exchange 2010 next year, but as they put the budget together last year, they looked into the possibility of moving to Office 365 instead and were able to do that for about the same costs, while adding additional functionality.

Microsoft also announced a series of schools that have signed on to use Office 365 in places including Atlanta, San Antonio, Fargo and other schools — representing a total of 540,000 new students and faculty adopting Windows 8.

One of Windows 8’s advantages over the iPad in education is a push among standardized testing groups to require the use of physical keyboards, not virtual on-screen keyboards that partially cover the screen, said Jon Phillips, a managing director for strategy at Dell involved in educational and public sector initiatives.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is among the executives speaking to the public officials at the conference, but his session tomorrow morning is closed to the media.

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