Schools Agency Plans To Teach Microsoft A Lesson

Dennis Faas's picture

Microsoft could be in even more trouble with European Union competition regulators after a complaint by a British government agency. The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), which oversees computer purchasing in schools and colleges, says Microsoft Office doesn't work smoothly enough with other programmes.

They argue that Microsoft should use the independent OpenDocument format which makes it easy to transfer files such as spreadsheets or word documents between rival software packages. Microsoft has its own 'open' format, Office Open XML, but critics say it's too complicated and argue there's no point having two rival systems.

Stephen Lacey, the man in charge of BECTA, says Microsoft's failure to use OpenDocument doesn't just hurt competitors: "Such barriers can also damage the interests of education and training organisations, learners, teachers and parents."

Although Microsoft Office does have a converter to produce OpenDocument files, Lacey argues that it doesn't work well and is far from accessible.

BECTA has previously complained about this to British regulators and wrote to the European Commission (which administers the laws and policies made by the European Parliament). They've also complained domestically about the terms and conditions of Microsoft's schools licensing, though this complaint hasn't gone to European regulators yet.

The European Commission says it will investigate BECTA's complaint as part of a wider investigation into the OpenDocument-Office Open XML rivalry which began in January. (

The complaint marks a continuing change in attitude for BECTA. In the past, there have been many complaints that they've been biased towards Microsoft products and that their regulations make it much harder for school's to opt for open-source software.

However, last year BECTA recommended that schools should not upgrade to Windows Vista or Office 2007, saying it was too expensive. They also pointed out that there would likely be problems with students saving their files in Office 2007 format and then finding they couldn't use them on home computers that ran either older Microsoft software or open-source programs. (Source:

Education throws up a particular dilemma when it comes to technology. There's a strong argument that schools should be encouraged to explore open-source software because it's cheaper and to some more reliable. On the other hand, the pragmatic case says most students will end up using Microsoft software in their jobs, so it's more useful to learn how to use those programs.

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