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Vista, Office 2007 get thumbs down from UK schools tech advisor

High risk, high cost, lack of interoperability and a lack of need have been cited as major reasons why UK schools should avoid upgrading to Windows Vista and Office 2007 in a new report from a respected British Government technology advisory body.

The 20 page report "Microsoft Vista and Office 2007, Interim Report with Recommendations on Adoption and Deployment" was authored by the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) and released late last week. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the report recommends in no uncertain terms that schools should steer clear of both of Microsoft's new flagship products for the time being.

For Microsoft, this is particularly bad news because by the estimation of Becta, the combined cost of deploying Vista and Office 2007 throughout UK schools, not including graphics cards for Vista's Aero interface, would be around £327 million (US$643 million), much of which would go into the software company's pockets. However, if the advice of Becta is heeded that won't happen.

According to the report, while the enhancements in Vista add value, they do not justify its early deployment in UK schools. While acknowledging that Vista has key advantages over Windows XP in areas such as security and access, the report states: "A comprehensive features analysis was carried out on Vista and the results confirmed that there were no 'must have' features."

According to the report, many of the features touted in Vista, such as IE7 and Windows Media Player are freely available without the need to upgrade from Windows XP. Others, such as Bitlocker drive encryption, are not in widespread use in the education sector.

Another particularly worrying point made in the report concerns the value of Aero. "The costs versus the benefits of the Aero interface are questionable, since most ICT-based teaching and learning now takes place in applications (browsers, curriculum tools and so on) not at the operating-system level," the report states.

The report also questioned the wisdom of becoming an early adopter of Vista because of possible stability issues.

"The version of Windows XP generally agreed to be the most stable became available with the release of Service Pack 2 in August 2004, almost three years after the launch of the product. Windows XP was developed from an existing operating system whereas Vista is a wholly new operating system. It seems reasonable therefore not to deploy Vista until it has a demonstrably stable and secure track record," the report states.

In the case of Office 2007, the Becta report had no problem with the product's stability but was highly concerned with the software's usability and interoperability.

"With Office 2007, Microsoft introduces a new UI for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook, but there is no 'classic' mode – that is to say, it is not possible to revert to the earlier UI. Should mixtures of Office versions be deployed (which could occur, for example, when educational institutions purchase new equipment with Office 2007 pre-installed), this will cause usability issues as users will be faced with different UIs depending on which machine they are using at any given time," the report states.

The report was particularly concerned with compatibility issues arising between Office 2007 and competing open source products such as Open Office and Star Office.

"In relation to interoperability between Office 2007 and competitor products (such as StarOffice or OpenOffice), all tests failed as none of these alternatives supported the new Office 2007 file formats. Additionally Microsoft's current adoption of the OpenDocument Format (ODF) format is limited: it will initially at least be an add-in rather than natively supported. These factors could lead to a situation where a move to Office 2007 by education establishments could make it more difficult for learners and their parents to use non-Microsoft products at home to share documents," the Becta report states.

"Using the default file format of Microsoft Office 2007 therefore has the potential to exacerbate 'digital divide' issues as a result of the loss of interoperability with free-to-use products. Becta considers that educational institutions should only consider deploying Office 2007 when they are assured of its interoperability with alternative products including free-to-use products such as OpenOffice.org."

Aside from anything else, however, the Becta report concludes that, like Vista, Office 2007 is simply not a must have solution for schools. The report notes that competing free open source solutions such as Open Office provide about 50% of the functionality of Office 2007, which it states is more than enough to meet the needs of schools. In addition, the report notes that many users are satisfied with the functionality of their current versions of Microsoft Office.

"Becta has not yet been able to identify any realistic justification for the early adoption of Office 2007 across the educational ICT estate. Recognising that many educational institutions already have perfectly adequate office productivity solutions, we believe that there would need to be a strong case to justify the necessary investment," the report states.

The unhappy conclusion for Microsoft is that Becta essentially recommends that the software company go away and come back with a better business case for UK schools to upgrade to the company's new products. An even bigger worry for the world's largest software company is that the same scenario may well be repeated throughout the education sector elsewhere in the world.

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