Alliance Weighs In on Microsoft Interoperability in Education

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[Editor's note: Updated information on this topic can be found in our story "Microsoft To Adopt ODF, Take Role in Format Development," which can be accessed here. --D.N.]

As we reported last week, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta), a group that advises the British government on education technology issues, referred a complaint to the European Commission about the impact of Microsoft's interoperability issues in education. Now the ODF (OpenDocument Format) Alliance is stepping in with support for Becta's move. Microsoft, for its part, responded today by saying that it wholly supports interoperability and will work to resolve the issues raised by the groups.

At issue for Becta is Microsoft's support for its own Office Open XML (OOXML) document format in Office 2007 at the expense of comparable support for ODF. Both formats have been approved as ISO/IEC standards, with Microsoft's OOXML gaining ratification just last month. ODF is supported by competitors of Microsoft, including IBM and Sun.

Last Monday, Becta released a statement announcing its move to bring the issue to the attention of the EC, saying, "Becta believes that impediments to interoperability limit choice. 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."

The EC has been leading its own investigation into Microsoft interoperability in relation to anti-competitiveness issues since January of this year.

In response to last week's action by Becta, the ODF Alliance's managing director, Marino Marcich, released the following statement today: "That a major government agency, in this case the UK Government's lead agency for information and communications technology (ICT) in education, felt compelled to take such an action demonstrates that the wider marketplace, which includes educational and training organizations, libraries and archival institutions, will be adversely impacted by OOXML's impediments to interoperability. We have repeatedly urged Microsoft to provide native, built-in support for the truly open ODF document standard, as [Becta] has suggested."

Becta also went so far as to recommend against the adoption of Office 2007 (and Vista) by educational institutions in a report it issued in January.

"This final review confirmed that there remains no compelling case for deployment. It also confirmed that the use of Office 2007 could adversely affect document interoperability between the school or college and the home environment," the report stated. Further: "... [W]e advise that no widespread deployment of Office 2007 should take place until schools and colleges are confident that they have in place mechanisms to deal with the interoperability and potential 'digital divide' issues that the review has identified. To do otherwise risks introducing unnecessary complexities and restrictions on the choices available to students, teachers and families when exchanging documents between home and school, and potentially introducing additional financial burdens for parents."

OpenForum Europe, a non-profit organization that advocates open-source software, also chimed in today. Said Graham Taylor, OFE chief executive, "As the Becta report makes clear, such impediments would have the likely effect of limiting software choice and substantially raising prices for students, teachers, and parents alike. The lack of interoperability denies students and families access to free or low-cost software alternatives, including open source. To date, Microsoft has promised ODF support via a translator tool, but as the Becta report makes clear, user intervention is required and the results are less than satisfactory. The translator is no substitute for the native ODF support that customers are demanding."

However, a Microsoft representative told us via e-mail today that the company is committed to interoperability and that it will work toward a resolution of the issues raised by Becta and the ODF Alliance.

"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 file format. We will continue to work with Becta and the Commission in a cooperative manner to resolve these issues."

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com.

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at dnagel@1105media.com.

About the Author

David Nagel is the executive producer for 1105 Media's online K-12 and higher education publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. He can now be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/THEJournalDave (K-12) or http://twitter.com/CampusTechDave (higher education). You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192.

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