Education body fails to justify Vista upgrade

Becta report on the use of Microsoft products in UK schools and colleges, and finds little reason to support investment in upgrades to Vista and Office 2007.

Becta, the body promoting learning through technology, has published an interim report on how Microsoft products are used in the UK schools and colleges and finds little reason to upgrade to Vista and Office 2007.

The report finds 'no "must have" features in [Vista] that would justify early deployment in schools and colleges,' and that an early deployment of the operating system is 'strongly recommended against.'

It assesses the cost of a widespread roll-out to be in the region of 160m and wants Microsoft to help out with some pilot cases, with no decisions to be made until next year when Becta's full report will be available.

On Office 2007, it says that of the 170-odd new features identified, none are 'must-have' for the education sector and that much of the Office software currently in use already meets or exceeds the requirements of schools and colleges.

Becta says many alternatives to the Microsoft Office system are up to the job and should be considered , including open-source suites such as OpenOffice. However, it warns that interoperability issues are likely to dog any such decisions. It points to concerns over the lack of support for the new XML-based file formats in Office 2007 within competitor products, while Microsoft's implementation of an interpreter for the Open Document Format could be better.

Other concerns include the delays in delivering new versions. Vista has been the first new Windows system for some five years, but has arrived literally years late. Becta wants Microsoft to provide schools affected by this with 'compensatory value'.

Dr Stephen Lucy, Executive Director - Strategic Technologies, said: 'Our advice to schools and colleges is that they need to be sure that there is a real business case for upgrading to these new products, as the costs are significant and the benefits currently unclear.

'We want to see easier access to competitor products so that schools and colleges can exercise real choice. We are of course aware of the importance of interoperability issues in this area and will be keeping a close watch on developments.'

The body also questions Microsoft's licensing terms for the education sector, describing them as too complex and not well understood by schools. This has led to schools not adopting the best licences and therefore spending more than they need to. In some cases, schools are having to pay licence fees for software based on computer numbers, where that figure includes machines nearly 10 years old and unable to run the software effectively in the first place.

It says that the education sector does not have the same choices available as licencees in government or the private sector, and the costs to schools wishing to buy themselves out of the subscription model struggle with the cost of doing so. Becta has asked Microsoft to reduce these charges.

It says that there is 'significant potential for institutions to find themselves "locked in" to such arrangements,' and recommends that any schools considering entering a licensing agreement without any price incentives to wait until the full report is published in 2008.

Becta says it is currently negotiating with Microsoft over its findings.

Microsoft said in a statement that 'Microsoft is a long-standing partner in UK Education and works closely with government, teachers, schools and universities to understand their ICT needs. We are committed to demonstrating that the smart use of technology can save teachers time, enrich the learning experience and help everyone reach their potential.'

'The products, people and services we provide are offered to education customers after close consultation and development with schools, colleges and universities,' it added.

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