Microsoft licensing switch pleases Becta

The government body that oversees schools' IT has welcomed Microsoft's interoperability intentions, but some members of the open-source community say the software giant is trying to lock schools into licences

Becta, the government body in charge of IT in education, has welcomed a pilot Microsoft licensing programme for schools and has said it is "pleased" about the company's progress on making its products more interoperable.

Microsoft has announced it will begin a new licensing programme, initially as a pilot available to all schools, in approximately six months, Becta said in a statement on Tuesday. The company's educational volume-licensing arrangements usually cover all machines in an educational institution, regardless of which operating system is installed on them.

The new scheme will enable schools to run competitor software, such as Apple and Linux operating systems, without having to pay Microsoft licence-fees for those systems. In addition, schools can decline to pay for Vista licences for systems technically incapable of running it.

"We have been reviewing our school licensing arrangements in the light of educational policy developments and the issues that have been raised by Becta," Michel van der Bel, a vice president in Microsoft's public sector international division, was quoted as saying in Becta's statement:

Becta on Tuesday also acknowledged "substantial progress" by Microsoft on interoperability. The schools' IT body had been concerned about interoperability between the open-source Open Document Format (ODF) and Microsoft's Office 2007 formats. It lodged a complaint about Microsoft with the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) over anti-competitive practices in October 2007, and in May took that complaint to the European Commission.

"In Becta's view, Microsoft's clear commitment to effective interoperability and to the introduction of a pilot licensing programme is excellent news for schools," Becta said.

At the time of writing, Becta was not able to tell how it intended to judge whether Microsoft Office 2007 had been made completely interoperable with ODF, given that Microsoft code is proprietary and therefore difficult to scrutinise. However, a Becta spokesperson said the organisation was "pleased about Microsoft's intentions".

Some members of the open-source community had a less positive reaction to Becta's statement. Mark Taylor, chief executive of Sirius Corporation and founder of the Open Source Consortium, said: "[Sirius's view] is that Microsoft has been forced to this position, and that the term 'clear commitment' should be read 'dragged kicking and screaming'." He asked: "If not for the stance of Neelie Kroes and the European Commission, if not for the OOXML roadshow and the ISO controversy, if not for Becta's OFT complaint, does anyone believe this would happen?"

Taylor said that schools "should not be fooled" by Microsoft's moves towards interoperability and reformed licensing, and that the end result would be that schools would still be locked into using Microsoft products.