Microsoft has responded to criticism of its software by the organisation that advises the government on schools IT.
Much of Becta's concern is focused on Office 2007, as well as the cost to schools and the difficulty of installing Vista.
In a report released on Wednesday, Becta recommended that schools should not upgrade to Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows Vista, or its latest productivity suite, Office 2007. The agency argued there are prohibitive cost and interoperability factors which mean that deployment of either product is not currently a practical option.
Becta's main concern with Office 2007 is the potential for difficulties to arise when attempting to read documents created in Office 2007 using older and non-Microsoft applications, such as Office 2003 and OpenOffice. Most poorer households are not yet running Office 2007, the agency said, and so deploying it in schools would risk opening up what Becta referred to as a "digital divide", excluding some pupils from reading documents.
Becta said it was concerned about Microsoft's support of its own document specification, Office Open XML (OOXML), on which Office 2007 is based. It added that Microsoft still does not effectively support OpenDocument Format (ODF), which is an international standard.
"No widespread deployment of Office 2007 should take place until schools and colleges are sure they have in place mechanisms to deal with the interoperability and potential digital-divide issues," stated Becta's report. In the meantime, the agency suggested that schools save documents in traditional formats, such as .doc, .xls or .ppt, rather than in OOXML.
Microsoft was dismissive of Becta's report, saying that what matters is the opinions of schools themselves.
Steve Beswick, director of education for Microsoft UK, said: "Customers tell us that they are committed to Vista and Office 2007. You can see that in the sales figures." Beswick declined to reveal sales figures for either Vista and Office 2007, but claimed they were selling faster than their previous incarnations, XP and Office 2003.
Beswick also rejected Becta's advice that schools should not operate multiple versions of Windows. "For a period [during upgrade], customers have a mixed environment. [The] feedback from schools is: that's fine," Beswick said.
In its report, Becta also recommended schools support open-source software. The move will surprise many in the open-source community who have criticised Becta for being too closely aligned with Microsoft.
The Becta report called on PC suppliers to offer schools the choice of at least one open-source office-productivity suite. It recommended the use of free software, pointing to the successful development of Google Apps, StarOffice and the free version of IBM's Lotus Symphony.
A source at Becta, who works closely with its technology suppliers and asked not to be named, said: "We are promoting open source to schools. There are good benefits for schools. We would like there to be more volume."
Microsoft remained unfazed. "We think our software is value for money," said Beswick. "Do we see a lot of open-source technology on the desktop in education? We don't."
Becta seems increasingly frustrated at its lack of agreement with Microsoft on critical issues, with interoperability and licensing at the top of its list of concerns. In October, the discord led Becta to refer Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), alleging that the software giant was benefiting from abusing its dominant position in the market. The OFT is due to meet this month to discuss the matter.
In the meantime, Becta has chosen not to renew its memorandum of understanding with Microsoft, which has been in place for the last four years and which puts in place an agreement over the prices schools pay for Microsoft software. The agency says that prices will be maintained in the meantime, but that it wants to wait for the OFT's findings before signing a new agreement.
The licensing part of the dispute centres around the so-called Schools Agreement, which means that schools must buy a Microsoft licence for every machine, regardless of whether it is running Windows software. Schools can choose to pay for only the machines which run Windows, but they then have to buy Microsoft licences outright, which is more expensive in the short term and difficult for schools on a tight budget.
The Becta source called this "totally unfair" and said the discussions it has had with Microsoft had been "quite problematical". He said: "In our 2007 report, we made it clear where the main issues were. We are quite disappointed, after a year of discussion with Microsoft, that we haven't come up with a solution to the needs we identified."
Beswick said that Microsoft would not change its licensing conditions.
"If you are not running Microsoft software on all PCs, then you don't have to buy under the Schools Agreement," said Beswick. "We continue to have good relations with Becta. There are areas of difference. But we keep coming up with new ideas and I'm confident in time they will be resolved."