Conversion to open software programs for creating spreadsheets, documents, and other standard office files could become more commonplace in school districts, if a May 22 pledge by software giant Microsoft Corp. comes to fruition. 

In a development that could make it easier for schools to use cheaper, open technologies instead of proprietary programs, Microsoft said it will make its Office 2007 software compatible with the OpenDocument Format (ODF). 

Microsoft’s announcement comes after months of international pressure to make Office 2007 compatible with ODF, an open file format developed in 2005 by Microsoft competitors such as IBM and Sun Microsystems. Until now, Microsoft had embraced a different open file format that it had developed, called Office Open XML (or OOXML). But some critics said Microsoft’s open standard still resulted in compatibility problems for files created using open software programs such as OpenOffice, which derived from Sun’s StarOffice.

The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (Becta) last week issued a blistering rebuke of Microsoft’s initial refusal to make Office 2007 compatible with ODF.

Urging British schools to avoid licensing Office 2007 until Microsoft builds support for ODF into its software, Becta said Microsoft’s unwillingness to cooperate could lead to "higher prices and a range of other unsatisfactory effects which have a negative impact on wider policy initiatives, including improving educational outcomes, facilitating home-school links, and addressing the digital divide."

Even after Microsoft’s May 22 agreement to provide free updates to Office 2007 that will make the program fully compatible with open technologies, Becta officials said they would scrutinize the company’s next steps before issuing a new recommendation to British schools.

"Built-in and effective support for ODF in Office 2007 is still a key Becta requirement, and we would welcome any steps that improve the choices available to the education community," read a statement released by the organization. "Once the updated Office 2007 product is available, we will examine how the various issues identified in our final report on Office 2007 and the concerns we referred to the regulators are addressed by Microsoft’s revised approach. If necessary, we will update our advice to schools and colleges."

American school officials said Microsoft’s latest announcement could help schools in their efforts to convert to open technologies.

"If [Microsoft] really does what it says, it will be helpful to my district, as we are beginning to move toward using OpenOffice in our school computer labs and classrooms as a cost-saving [measure]," said Marc Liebman, superintendent of California’s Berryessa Union School District, in an eMail message to eSchool News. "OpenOffice’s products are much improved and have all of the functionality of [Microsoft] Office that our students need."

For many school systems, operating budgets have shrunk over the past year, prompting school board members and superintendents to seek cost-cutting measures. Berryessa officials announced last month that the school system would make budget cuts to absorb a $3.7 million shortfall for next year. The cuts were made after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unveiled a 2009 state budget that is 10 percent smaller overall than the state’s fiscal 2008 budget.

As Berryessa schools have moved toward using open office software, compatibility between files created in OpenOffice and Microsoft Office remained an impediment to system-wide computer network changes, Liebman said.

"This announcement [should] resolve that problem," he said.

Critics say Microsoft’s Office Open XML format effectively forces Microsoft customers into buying only Microsoft programs.

The European Commission launched an antitrust investigation into Microsoft Office in January.

"The Commission would welcome any step that Microsoft took toward genuine interoperability, more consumer choice, and less vendor lock-in," a European Union executive said in a statement, responding to Microsoft’s latest announcement.

"The Commission will investigate whether the announced support of OpenDocument Format in Office leads to better interoperability and allows consumers to process and exchange their documents with the software product of their choice," the EU statement said.

Thomas Vinje, a spokesman for the European Committee for Interoperable Systems—a group representing IBM, Nokia Corp., Sun Microsystems, RealNetworks Inc., and Oracle Corp.—said Microsoft was dragging its heels, as its pledge to support ODF applies to its Office 2007 Service Pack 2, which is to be released in 2009.

"Microsoft is still playing for time to further consolidate its super-dominant position, and … continued antitrust vigilance will be necessary," Vinje said in a statement. "Microsoft’s new promise to implement ODF 1.1 in the first half of 2009 is pretty underwhelming."

In May, a British watchdog agency complained that Microsoft’s OOXML file format for storing documents discouraged competition. It offered to help the EU find out if the software giant withheld information from rivals concerning the interoperability of file formats.

Last year, the EU high court upheld a record antitrust fine of $2.63 billion for the way Microsoft has marketed its Windows operating system in Europe.

Microsoft argues its Office Open XML format is superior to ODF, and the company has succeeded in making it an internationally accepted standard.

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Becta

Berryessa Union School District