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Becta asks EC to probe Microsoft school deals

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Microsoft’s plans to get Office 2007 into British classrooms suffered a fresh blow yesterday when Becta confirmed that it has referred an interoperability complaint to the European Commission (EC).

The latest move from the UK’s education technology agency follows its complaint to the Office of Fair Trading in October last year. Becta said Microsoft was guilty of unfair licensing practices in the schools software market.

Becta also alleged that the software giant’s latest office suite contains too many restrictions to be fully interoperable with other document formats.

The schools tech body said in a statement yesterday that it had officially complained to the EC and handed over “supporting evidence”.

“Becta believes that impediments to interoperability limit choice,” it said. “In the context of the education system this can result in higher prices and a range of other unsatisfactory effects which have a negative impact on wider policy initiatives, including improving educational outcomes, facilitating home school links and addressing the digital divide.”

A Microsoft spokesman told us today:

“Microsoft is deeply committed to education and interoperability. We believe that more and more schools are upgrading to Windows Vista and Office 2007 as they increasingly recognise the benefits of embracing technology to transform teaching and learning.

“We have funded the development of tools to promote interoperability between Office 2007 and products based on the ODF [Open Document Format] file format. We will continue to work with Becta and the Commission in a cooperative manner to resolve these issues.”

In January Becta warned against the “widespread deployment of Office 2007” until schools and colleges could be sure they have mechanisms in place to deal with the issues it reiterated yesterday.

The EC decided earlier this year to undertake a formal investigation into Microsoft's approach to interoperability across a number of areas.

As part of that ongoing probe the commission is scrutinising Microsoft's contentious file format Office Open XML (OOXML), on the grounds that the specification doesn't work with those of competitors.

Microsoft, in March this year, secured enough votes to see OOXML approved as an international standard, despite a wide range of complaints against it.

Meanwhile, in related MS Office news, Redmond today pushed out service pack one (SP1) for the Mac. It also announced a future roadmap for the suite of products that include Word, Excel and PowerPoint, which brings Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) in from the cold.

Microsoft explained its U-turn on VBA, thusly:

“Although the Mac BU [business unit] increased support in Office 2008 with alternate scripting tools such as Automator and AppleScript the team recognises that VBA-language support is important to a select group of customers who rely on sharing macros across platforms.”

However, it's more likely that Microsoft's change of heart came about to prevent the small but profitable Office for Mac market migrating to OpenOffice. ®

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