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Becta Praises Microsoft's Stance on Interoperability, Licensing

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) appears to be heading toward a reconciliation with Microsoft. The agency, with its outspoken stance on interoperability in education, announced that it's been making "substantial progress" in its discussions with the company that it once chastised. Some of that progress includes concessions from Microsoft on educational licensing.

Back in 2007, Becta caused a stir when it filed a complaint against Microsoft with Britain's Office of Fair Trading for perceived problems with Microsoft's interoperability practices. More recently, in May 2008, the group referred its complaint to the European Commission in support of an antitrust investigation.

At issue for Becta, which advises U.K. schools on technology, has been both academic licensing constraints and Microsoft's past lackluster support for open standards, in particular OpenDocument Format (ODF), in its Office applications. These concerns were detailed in a separate report that Becta issued in early 2008 -- a report that recommended against deploying Microsoft software in the British educational sector.

Becta's outspokenness may have had a positive effect. Microsoft has made some concessions to Becta and to interoperability in general. In mid-May, Microsoft announced expanded support for ODF and other document formats in Office 2007. And the company now says that it will introduce a new, alternative licensing program that will be available to British schools alongside its existing school licensing program.

What the new licensing program does is remove a requirement that British schools using subscription agreements pay Microsoft a licensing fee when using competing technologies when those technologies (such as Mac or Linux systems) are not running Microsoft software. It would also change other aspects of Microsoft's academic licensing, such as paying per user rather than per system and removing a requirement to pay a licensing fee for Microsoft software on systems that can't run that software.

Becta explained it this way in information released on Tuesday.

"Schools opting to use the pilot licensing programme can choose to stop paying Microsoft licence fees for Apple Mac or Linux computers which are not actually running any Microsoft software. Computers running open source products such as OpenOffice.org would also no longer attract Microsoft licensing fees. Importantly such schools will also be able to decline to licence products such as Vista on systems that are technically incapable of running it. There are also now options for schools to license based on the number of users, rather than the number of PCs, or a combination of the two."

The new licensing program will be piloted in all British schools, beginning about six months from now.

"We understand that the issue of interoperability was one of the key factors underpinning Becta's October 2007 complaint to the OFT," said Michel Van der Bel, Microsoft's vice president, Public Sector International. "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."

He continued: "We have been reviewing our school licensing arrangements in the light of educational policy developments and the issues that have been raised by Becta. We will introduce new licensing arrangements designed to deliver the flexibility demanded by the refreshed Harnessing Technology Strategy."

Becta, for its part, said it will commit to collaborating with Microsoft "to evaluate the improvements being developed, and as part of that process will provide updated guidance to the education sector on their deployment as and when appropriate."

So Becta has not quite rescinded its recommendation against deploying Microsoft products in British schools. Its "updated guidance" -- whatever form that takes -- will likely come in late 2008.

"I welcome 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's Chief Executive Stephen Crowne in a statement released on Tuesday. "This will give schools and colleges additional flexibility to use a wider range of software."

Crowne added: "I also welcome Microsoft's plans to pilot new licensing arrangements designed to give additional choice and flexibility to schools to meet the needs of their learners. These are very positive developments, responding to our concerns about the current arrangements."

Further information about these developments, including details about Microsoft's forthcoming pilot licensing program, can be found here.

About the Author

Dave Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's educational technology online publications and electronic newsletters.

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