The news this week that Becta, the government's adviser on the use of IT in schools, has decided to drag Microsoft in front of the Office of Fair Trading, seems like good news for those who claim the software giant has an unfair grip on the technology used in education.
However, in an echo of the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the open-source community doesn't quite see it that way. Instead, organisations such as the Open Source Consortium argue that Becta's latest action is further evidence of the government's myopia when it comes to all things Microsoft. Rather than investing time and energy into helping to promote real alternatives to Redmond's hold on school IT, Becta is simply using the OFT as a negotiating tool. Like many organisations, Becta seems incapable of thinking outside a Microsoft-defined box.
For its part, Becta claims that its role is not to recommend specific technologies but promote technology in all its forms. Actively pushing open source would be entering a religious debate that it clearly wants no part of. That sort of non-interventionist stance would be fine if the industry it was arbitrating was one built on a level playing field, but Microsoft's undue influence doesn't allow for that.
If Becta is really serious about promoting the right technology for schools — rather than the most-popular or best-marketed — it must take action to redress the imbalance inherent in the industry. Becta has a higher mandate than simply making the best of the loaded hand schools have been dealt. Providing the knowledge and skills to allow institutions to make informed choices about the options available to them is the only way for the organisation to deliver on its commitment: "To increase the number of educational organisations making strategic and effective use of ICT."
With increasing interest in open-source educational options such as Edubuntu, schools need a forum to encourage active participation in exploring such alternatives; ICT is increasingly about communities. This is where Becta should lead.
Microsoft won't appreciate being called in front of the OFT, but what it fears more than any government-endorsed mauling is being subdued and sidelined. Becta is right to call in the regulators where it sees fit, but its long-term goals should be to empower educational establishments to the degree that the actions of one vendor are no longer a threat.