Becta, the organisation that advises the UK government on educational IT, has escalated its complaint over the interoperability of Microsoft's products to the European Commission.
Monday's announcement has already drawn praise from some of the same players in the open-source community who, little more than a year ago, criticised Becta for being too closely aligned with Microsoft.
Last October, Becta went to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) with two Microsoft-related complaints, one regarding school subscription-licensing arrangements and the other regarding the lack of full interoperability between recent products, such as Windows Vista and Office 2007, and earlier versions of Microsoft's software. For example, users of Office 2003 could have trouble reading documents created in Office 2007.
However, at the start of this year the Commission began its own investigation into Microsoft's interoperability issues, an investigation that has since expanded to take in questions over how Microsoft may have used its dominance in the sector to push for the standardisation of its nascent Office Open XML (OOXML) document format. Becta has now taken its interoperability complaint up to the Commission, to be folded into that wider investigation. The licensing-related complaint is still being considered by the OFT.
"Becta believes that impediments to interoperability limit choice," the organisation said in a statement. "In the context of the education system, this can result in higher prices and a range of other unsatisfactory effects which have a negative impact on wider policy initiatives, including improving educational outcomes, facilitating home-school links and addressing the digital divide."
Becta's executive director of strategic technologies, Dr Stephen Lucey, has met with the Commission to discuss the matter and said on Monday that he welcomed the Commission's wider investigation.
"It is not just the interests of competitors and the wider marketplace that are damaged when barriers to effective interoperability are created," said Lucey. "Such barriers can also damage the interests of education and training organisations, learners, teachers and parents."
Lucey added, however, that Becta would prefer not to have to go to the competition authorities on the matter. "Ideally, we prefer to address interoperability issues by working in close partnership with the wider industry," he said. "We are successfully addressing a range of other interoperability challenges through this type of approach."
On Monday, Becta also announced an open-procurement process for its upcoming, revised software-licensing programme, which covers software such as office-productivity suites. One of the open-source community's main criticisms of Becta in the past has been the closed nature of such tenders.
Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium (OSC), which in November 2006 backed a group of MPs who accused Becta of restricting schools from deploying open-source software, praised Becta's latest moves.
"We welcome Becta's actions here and wholeheartedly congratulate them for listening to what the market is calling for," Taylor told ZDNet.co.uk on Tuesday. "For the past year, Becta have made a series of moves that show independence of thought, sensitivity to the evolving needs of ICT in UK education and, most importantly, a willingness to take action to level the playing field for ICT on behalf of British schoolchildren."
Taylor explained that he was referring to Becta's recommendations to schools not to upgrade their systems to Vista or Office 2007, as well as Becta's keen — if ultimately futile — representations to the British Standards Institution (BSI) to vote against OOXML's standardisation.
On Tuesday, Microsoft said it remained "deeply committed to education and interoperability".
"We believe that more and more schools are upgrading to Windows Vista and Office 2007 as they increasingly recognise the benefits of embracing technology to transform teaching and learning," a Microsoft spokesperson said. "We have funded the development of tools to promote interoperability between Office 2007 and products based on the ODF [OpenDocument Format] file format. We will continue to work with Becta and the Commission in a co-operative manner to resolve these issues."