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Microsoft makes another play for UK schools

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Microsoft yesterday made a strategic move to draw a line under a fiery spat with the UK's education technology agency over the software multinational's attempts to get Office 2007 into British classrooms.

In May Becta confirmed it had referred an interoperability complaint to the European Commission. It claimed that Microsoft's latest office suite contained too many restrictions to work fully with other document formats.

The group had previously accused MS of unfair licensing practices in the schools software market and made a formal complaint to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) in autumn last year.

Now Microsoft has stepped in to appease some of the education tech body's grumbles. It will introduce a new licensing programme for schools, initially as a pilot available to all schools, in approximately six months alongside the current School Agreement arrangements.

However, while offering Microsoft products with a reduced price tag to the education sector might be viewed by some as a move in the right direction, the firm didn't reveal how Office 2007 might be made more interoperable with other doc formats.

Microsoft's public sector veep Michel Van der Bel instead gave Becta this wishy-washy statement:

“We understand that the issue of interoperability was one of the key factors underpinning Becta’s October 2007 complaint to the OFT. I look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with Becta to ensure that in implementing built-in support for ODF in Microsoft Office 2007 we meet the needs of the education sector."

Becta, which is the organisation that advises the UK government on IT policy in education, responded by saying it was "pleased" with Microsoft's "clear commitment to effective interoperability and to the introduction of a pilot licensing programme".

"Microsoft's recent announcement of built-in support for ODF in Office 2007, and the very positive discussions we have had with them about their commitment to effective implementation," said Becta boss Stephen Crowne. "This will give schools and colleges additional flexibility to use a wider range of software. We will continue to work closely with Microsoft and the wider industry to maximise the benefit of ICT to our education institutions."

Open Source Consortium founder Mark Taylor told The Register that education bodies should stop and think before being "fooled" by Microsoft's new licensing program.

"Our view is that Microsoft has been forced to this position, and that the term 'clear commitment' should be read 'dragged kicking and screaming'," he said. "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?

"Schools can now choose between long-term software freedom or a short-term discount on the next lock-in play." ®

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