U.K. agency takes Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading

Open source advocates say U.K. government schools IT agency's complaint will only increase Microsoft's visibility.
Written by Peter Judge, Contributor

Becta, the United Kingdom government's adviser on IT in schools, has taken Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading over anti-competitive practices--but open source campaigners say Becta is still effectively promoting Microsoft.

"This is a mini-step in the right direction, but what Becta is actually doing is keeping Microsoft in front of the market to the exclusion of alternatives," said Mark Taylor of the Open Source Consortium pressure group. Becta's complaint is part of the process of negotiating a new contract for the use of Microsoft technology in schools and will therefore only add to the visibility of Microsoft in the market, Taylor suggested to ZDNet.co.uk on Friday.

In a statement, Becta said it was taking Microsoft to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) because negotiations had stalled, with no movement on "the limitations Microsoft places on schools using its subscription licensing arrangements and the potential interoperability difficulties for schools, pupils and parents who wish to use alternatives to Microsoft's Office suite, including 'free-to-use' alternatives".

In January 2007, Becta issued an interim report that raised issues over choice, competition and value for money for schools and recommended that schools don't take on Microsoft's Schools Agreement subscription licence until these issues are resolved. Becta also recommended that schools delay any use of Windows Vista or Office 2007 until interoperability issues--particularly with the open-source ODF format--are ironed out. Becta's executive director of strategic technologies, Dr Stephen Lucey, discussed these issues with ZDNet.co.uk earlier this year.

Despite its apparent frustration with Microsoft, Becta does not actively promote open source. "Open source is a separate issue, and schools can make their own decision," said a Becta spokesman on Friday. "We don't recommend specific technologies--we promote the use of technology per se."

"They're in danger of looking a bit silly, giving the market a non-recommendation and showing a lack of direction," said Taylor, who confronted Dr Lucey on Friday at a conference promoting open source in schools. The event, at Liverpool Digital, was run by the Open Schools Alliance, a campaign body supported by Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh, who has frequently criticized government support for Microsoft. The event had a keynote from Martin Dougiamas, the chief executive and founder of Moodle, an open source learning environment which leads the market but is still not on any government lists of recommended software.

Becta hopes that Microsoft will "move promptly to address the issues raised" and suggests that schools using Microsoft software should buy it instead of subscribing until the OFT complaint is sorted out, its statement says.

Becta's final report on Microsoft's academic licensing programs, which was scheduled for January 2008, will now be deferred until the OFT complaint is resolved. The final report on Vista and Office 2007 is also scheduled for January 2008.

A Microsoft spokesperson said: "We have not yet seen a copy of Becta's letter, so we are unable to make a specific comment at this stage. Every day, schools across the United Kingdom benefit through using our technology and participating in our academic programs. We are in ongoing discussions with Becta on this matter."

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