An eagerly-awaited report into the use of open source software in the UK education sector was published on Friday, and contained evidence that schools could significantly cut their IT spending by moving to non-proprietary software.
But Microsoft -- which could lose considerable revenue if large numbers of schools embraced open source -- lost little time in attacking the study, which was commissioned and published by the British Educational Communications and Technology Association (Becta).
The report involved 15 schools which used open source software and 33 that didn't. It concluded that the cost of a primary school computer running open source software was half that of one running proprietary software, while in secondary schools an open source PC was 20 percent cheaper.
Stephen Uden, Microsoft's education relations manager, claimed that this sample size was too small to draw firm conclusions from. Uden also defended Microsoft against the charge that schools that choose its software are getting worse value than those that take the open source path.
"Obviously costs are an important part of this. But most head teachers are interested in quality. We spend more time looking at better learning for kids," said Uden. He pointed out that three of the primary schools involved were supported by a secondary school, giving them access to valuable support -- something he claimed distorted the findings.
Becta did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The 24-page report looked at three areas -- technical infrastructure, administration and management, and curriculum software -- and overall delivered a mixed verdict about what open source software offers today.
The report found that open source software was generally superior as an operating system on both servers and PCs. But the schools involved were split as to whether open source applications were better than their proprietary counterparts. One teacher reported that some colleagues welcomed StarOffice, but others refused to use it and stuck with Word. At another school, open source software had been installed on laptops alongside proprietary alternatives, but appeared to be never used.
Becta described the position on content-specific open source software as "weaker", as the schools involved in the study were only using a very small range of open source teaching applications.
Despite this, OpenForum Europe -- which supports the use of open source software in business -- has hailed Becta's report.
"This report underlines the massive opportunity that exists for all schools to get the best value for money from their IT budgets," said Mike Banahan, director of OpenForum Europe. "The advent of Open Source Software solutions in education opens up the whole UK education market for the first time in a decade to competitive choice, removing the inevitability of lock-in."
The full report is available onBecta's Web site.