There are now six credible alternatives to Microsoft Office in schools, according to the government's advisor on IT in education.
Open Office, Corel WordPerfect Office, Star Office, Lotus SmartSuite, Sun's One SE and EasyOffice all offer the functionality that schoolchildren and teachers need, said Becta, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency, in a report issued this month.
All six packages were found to offer at least half of the functionality of Microsoft Office 2007, providing all the essential features for the education sector.
"We looked at nine alternatives to Office. Six had at least 50 percent of the functionality, offering the basic functions that you need," Tom McMullan, a Becta consultant, told ZDNet UK.
But Becta also found three popular Office application suites which it said were too poor to be used in schools. The blacklist was led by Microsoft's own Works package, a simplified version of Office. Also discouraged is the use of Ability Office, sold by supermarket chain Tesco, as well as Google's online applications.
Becta called for a selection of the six commended alternatives to be offered to schools as well as Microsoft's software. Becta executive director Stephen Lucey said: "We want to see easier access to competitor products so that schools and colleges can exercise real choice."
Becta said there were 176 more features in Office 2007 than in Office 2003, but said that most of the advancements were appropriate only for the private sector. There were no "must-haves" for schools. "Becta has not yet been able to identify any realistic justification for the early adoption of Office 2007 across the educational ICT estate," it wrote in a report which evaluated both Office 2007 and Vista, Microsoft's latest operating system.
Microsoft, though, dismissed Becta's findings. Steve Beswick, its director of education for the UK, said, "Teachers are pushing Office 2003 hard. We haven't seen many schools switch to open source and there are lots of new features in Office 2007."
Refuting the suggestion that it was difficult to argue with an organisation as powerful as Becta, Beswick told ZDNet UK: "An even bigger force to argue with is the customer. They should evaluate it and test it."
Mark Taylor, the founder of the Open Source Consortium, a UK-based group of open source suppliers, said schools should consider whether the extra features in Office 2007 were worth the cost. "Open Office hasn't got as many features as Office 2007. The question is whether it is worth those extra features for the price tag. Do people use all the features in Office 2007?" he said.
Taylor added that migration from a Microsoft package to Open Office was no more complicated than migrating between Microsoft packages.
As reported last week, Becta also suggested that schools should not yet deploy Vista. It said that costs were high and that, as with Office, there are no must-have features for schools in the new operating system.
Microsoft is offering a free 60-day trial to encourage schools and businesses to try out Office 2007.