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.

Open docx files in OpenOffice on Ubuntu

I’ve been using Office 2007 quite happily for some time now. But the niggles are starting to hit me.

One of the main issues is the new .docx format not being supported across the board yet. And with me being a sucker for all things new, I have to make a point of saving an alternate version to open in OpenOffice.

Until now.

I found this little nugget on the Ubuntu forums to install the Novell converter in Ubuntu:

1) Download the file odf-converter-1.0.0-5.i586.rpm from

2) Use alien to convert it to a Slackware tgz file

<code>alien -ct odf-converter-1.0.0-5.i586.rpm</code>

3) Unpack the slackware tgz file

<code>tar xzf odf-converter-1.0.0.tgz</code>

4) Copy three files into your directories — note that the usr that you’re copying from is a directory that was inside the tgz file (3 lines here)

<code>sudo cp usr/lib/ooo-2.0/program/OdfConverter /usr/lib/openoffice/program/</code>
<code>sudo cp usr/lib/ooo-2.0/share/registry/modules/org/openoffice/TypeDetection/Filter/MOOXFilter_cpp.xcu /usr/lib/openoffice/share/registry/modules/org/openoffice/TypeDetection/Filter/</code>
<code>sudo cp usr/lib/ooo-2.0/share/registry/modules/org/openoffice/TypeDetection/Types/MOOXTypeDetection.xcu /usr/lib/openoffice/share/registry/modules/org/openoffice/TypeDetection/Types/</code>

Once I restarted OpenOffice, I found that it could import basic docx files quite happily.

This worked nicely for me in Feisty Fawn – although it’s a good idea to make sure that OpenOffice is up-to-date.

Office 2007 Deployment Computer Startup Scripts

Now that MS Office 2007 is doing the rounds, I suppose it’s time to lookat some of its shortcomings.

It has a few when it comes to deployment. The biggest nuisance being deployment.

You have four options:

  • Install it on a PC manually (not great)
  • Deploy through group policy with no customisations
  • Use a deployment system such as SMS
  • Use a computer startup script

You may as well just say “no” to the first one. Anything more than a handful of PCs and you have a tedious task.

Group Policy has always been my method of choice. Most of my clients have less than 100 PCs, so Group Policy deployment is ideal. But as pointed out in the list, you cannot customise the installation with any defaults.

SMS is out. It’s not worth explaining to clients why it’s a good idea to buy software that makes my life easier. Even though the effort and management might simplify things somewhat.

So we’re stuck with computer startup scripts. Another method I hate – but if you want to control Office Deployments, then this is the way to do it. Thankfully, Aaron Parker has posted some startup scripts to help with this using the MSP method.

If you are using a network with WSUS, then updates become a non-issue, and I think that the only time to need to redeploy is if you decide to change the application packages that you want. At which point, you could check that executables of the programs exist or record your own registry entries that you can check for.

It’s not a great method (I’ve managed to avoid having to use ANY computer startup scripts in 2000-based networks) – but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work. Especially if you make sure to use the quiet options in the Setup /admin tool.

Office, eh?

Palm realises that Outlook 2007 is out!

I was hopping around the Palm site looking for some Outlook 2007 conduits for my Tungsten T3 today. I realised that I haven’t actually synchronized my Palm in about a month!

I was lucky to find Outlook 2007 Conduits on the Palm site, only after following a link within the Outlook 2003 conduits. Oddly, Palm haven’t made any effort to link to this on the main support page.

So, I can finally see if the whole Ubuntu / Virtualbox / XP / Palm Desktop / Exchange configuration is giong to work for me. This is really the big thing for me at the moment. Until there is some vast improvement in Evolution, I can’t see myself using it. The whole process was just too unreliable. And I am not keen to pay for 3rd party syncronisation software.

Anyway, if you are using a Palm device and have upgraded to Office 2007, go and download the new conduits!

Microsoft begin to make good on open formats

Release 1 of the OpenXML Translator for Microsoft Word is now available through Sourceforge.

This tool allows MS Word users to open files saved in OpenOffice Write format (.ODF), make modifications and save the files.

Microsoft is due to release this through its website shortly, and apparently there will be Impress and Calc converters, too.

For people who are considering using OpenOffice, or use both OO and MS Office, this is definitely good news.

The tool will work in both Word 2003 and Word 2007.

Excel to PDF

Following my Word to PDF convertor script, here is the Excel version.

MS Excel 2007
Office 2007 Save As PDF Plugin

Same rules apply. Copy and paste the code into notepad and save onto the desktop as ExceltoPdf.vbs.

<code>'Excel to PDF
'By John Reid
'(c) 2007 bloggingIT -

'Feel free to use, modify, and redistribute - just leave the credits intact

'Quick Export to PDF
Const xlTypePDF = 0

if  Wscript.Arguments.Count &gt; 0 Then

 'Fire up MS Excel 2007
 Set objFSO = CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject")
 Set objExcel = CreateObject("Excel.Application")
 'Enumerate the passed in file names
 For i = 0 to wscript.arguments.count - 1
  Set objFile = objFSO.GetFile(WScript.Arguments(i))
  Set objDoc = objExcel.Workbooks.Open(WScript.Arguments(i),,TRUE)
  dirPath = objFSO.GetParentFolderName(objFile)
  fileBaseName = objFSO.GetBaseName(objFile)
  'Export to PDF using preferred settings
  pdf = objExcel.ActiveWorkbook.ExportAsFixedFormat (xlTypePDF,dirPath & "\" & fileBaseName & ".pdf")
 'Quit MS Excel
 msgbox("You must select a file to convert")
End If</code>

Once saved, just select and drag any Excel document onto the script, and a PDF will be created in the same directory.