Becta – you’re getting it all wrong

I don’t know what Becta think they aim to achieve with the latest anti-Microsoft report, but I don’t think that they are going to reach the computer utopia that their report on Microsoft Vista and Office 2007 seems to desire.

I’ve breezed through the report, and I can’t get into my head

a) Who the report is aimed at
b) What the purpose is

As anybody who knows me knows, I’m not a Microsoft fanboy – and I’m not completely evangelical about Linux either. Both suit a purpose in their own way.

What irks me about this report is that it makes a great deal of assumptions, that invites the reader to go along with the ride and interpret that as the de-facto way of thinking.

My biggest annoyance of the report is the whinging about Office 2007. It complains that the DOCX format is not widely supported (true enough), and because Microsoft’s implementation of the “industry standard” open document formats is poor, everyone should use the Office binary format and OpenOffice.

Yes, that is right. Instead of being the driving force that Becta is supposedly meant to be, it’s making what I can only describe as a half-baked approach to document interoperability by saying, “Yeah – you should use OpenOffice. You should use ODF. But save in the office binary format.” I cannot fathom what they intend to accomplish with this attitude. If Becta truly are to inspire educational establishments to embrace open source and open standards – they are playing this totally wrong. I’ll rant a bit more about this later on. What beguiles me is that there is no acknowledgement of Office Compatibility mode. Also, Becta seem convinced that having an open document format means that it should render EXACTLY the same in any program that opens it. That’s just not the case. The point of open documents is to enable an application to access all of the information within, and render it approximately close to the original intent. Indeed, the DOCX file is a glorified ZIP file and no more. The XML is what’s in question with the open standards that ODF and DOCX are embroiled in.

Their year-long investigation into Windows Vista is a joke. Their summary is not to use mixed XP / Vista environments. If you’re considering upgrading your network, then take a look at Vista. So, the reader (if an IT person) is being told something that they should know: Any implementation of a new O/S environment takes planning, preparation, and testing. Oh, and mixed environments with XP and Vista are not the end of the world – I run them side by side quite happily.

I think it’s fair that the value added of using Vista Business compared to XP Professional is still in question. Not just for education, but for the industry as a whole. Microsoft have done a great job promoting Vista. But ultimately it is a very greedy operating system. Requirements are higher than what should be reasonable for an O/S, and most of the improvements are aimed at corporate customers where staff have their own computers – not the environment of schools or colleges.

A couple of niggles in Vista that cause complications on a roaming network:

  • The ‘lock computer’ button on the start panel can not be configured or changed. Totally useless in a roaming environment as a user may think that they have logged off when they press it. The consequence is that the new Start Panel has to be disabled on Vista machines.
  • No roaming gadgets – therefore the first thing that has to be turned off
  • Loss of active desktop. Now the intranet has to be opened by the user, instead of it being there by default. I know, gadgets are meant to replace that – which would be fine if it wasn’t for my last point

Also, the blanket statement of exercising your downgrade rights is a joke. Drivers for systems – especially laptops – are getting very difficult to track down all of a sudden for systems pre-Vista. The problem is compounded by the issue of a lack of drivers for Vista for some hardware peripherals. We’re in a transitional O/S point where we can’t seem to win either way. Becta miss this point entirely.

Finally, there’s Becta’s supposed pro-Open Source approach. They rejoice with Open Office, and say that there should be more choice. The problem is that when schools receive documents from other schools, or the education authority, of the government guess what? It’s Office binary format! And schools have Windows rammed down their throats because the EAs insist on them using Windows applications to deliver the curriculum. In fact, over the last couple of years, I’ve seem a number of free and discounted applications sent to schools where they are Windows applications. Then they deliver training on these programs.

If you want schools to be open source, you need:

  • to support the schools in doing so and not blame the industry for trying to sell something instead
  • to put pressure higher up the chain to being implementing policies to migrate to open document formats. Only then would it be possible for educational establishments to embrace this format
  • to start to educate people in education that there is an alternative

Finally, Becta needs to stop leeching off open-source like a parasite. I’m annoyed by it’s “get everything for free – don’t pay Microsoft” attitude. That’s not quite what open-source is about. With thousands of schools around the country, to ask schools to contribute in whatever way they can to projects that they benefit from would make open source more viable, because the UK education system could begin to change and direct the movement of open source. If a school is using an open-source alternative that would have cost them £250 for a site license of something else, why not contribute £50 to a project? If the project could do with documentation or translations, surely a secondary school or college could commit some resources to these kinds of things?

The education sector has by far the most potential to steer and promote the direction of open-source than anything else in the UK. It’s a completely missed and wasted opportunity.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect some practical guidance on these matters from the leader of “the national drive to inspire and lead the effective and innovative use of technology throughout learning.” I really would like to see more of that.

With Vista and Office 2007 out in the wild for over a year now, Becta should have been making these points 12 months ago. Instead they let it slide and the complain when things don’t pan out as they expect, while missing the point entirely.

It’s such a shame.