Agency says Microsoft hurts student interests

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A government agency has told the European Commission that Microsoft Office works poorly with rival software used in schools, hurting the interests of learners, teachers and parents.

Software programmes must meet the same standards to work together but the agency said Microsoft offers only its own “open standard” rather than effective support for Open Document Format (ODF), which the agency said increases choice for users.

Stephen Lucey, executive director of the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA), said the damage goes beyond hurting competitors.

“Such barriers can also damage the interests of education and training organisations, learners, teachers and parents”, Lucey said in a statement.

BECTA complained last year to the Office of Fair Trading and sent a copy to the European Commission this week.

“These are issues we are already looking at in the context of the interoperability investigation we opened in January 2008,” said Jonathan Todd, a spokesman for the Commission.

Microsoft said in a statement it was “deeply committed” to making its own programmes work smoothly with others.

“We have funded the development of tools to promote interoperability between Office 2007 and products based on the (Open Document Format) file format,” the company said.

Lucey disagreed. He said Microsoft compounded problems for non-technical users, making it hard to use ODF.

Microsoft’s ODF converters have “limited functionality ... and are poorly integrated into the overall Microsoft user interface, as compared with, for example, the integration and functionality Microsoft offers for its own OOXML format.”

ODF is a non-proprietary open file format whose full specifications are available to all. It was originally developed by Sun Microsystems..

The European Commission is examining whether Microsoft exerted improper influence over the International Standards Organisation to expand the number of standards from one to two, to include both ODF and Microsoft’s own competing OOXML.

Critics say it makes no more sense to have two standards for open software than it does to have two standards for railroad gauges or for next-generation disc recordings, in which HD DVD recently bowed to the Blue Ray standard.

ECIS, a trade group which had filed the original, broad complaint on interoperability against Microsoft, said the company was trying to undermine the Open Document Format by imposing its own standard, “with its serious interoperability difficulties.”

Lucey said that the problem with Microsoft goes beyond standards setting. BECTA has also complained to the Office of Fair Trading about the conditions under which Microsoft licenses its software to schools.

Last week Microsoft appealed against an 899 million euro (714.2 million pound) fine imposed by the European Commission for failing to comply with requirements, originally imposed in 2004, that it permit interoperability with server software.

editing by Elizabeth Fullerton