Becta today published an unfavourable interim report on Microsoft Vista and Office 2007.

The government ICT education agency found that whilst the new features of Vista add value,”there are no ‘must have’ features in the product that would justify early deployment in schools and colleges.”

“The technical, financial and organisational challenges associated with early deployment currently make this a high-risk strategy. Early deployment is therefore strongly recommended against,” it said in the report.

The agency urged Microsoft to facilitate a small number of pilot activities to clarify what the benefits of deploying Vista in schools and colleges would be and how much deployment would cost. It said the costs of a widespread deployment of Vista are currently estimated to be around £160 million, while the benefits are unclear.

Microsoft did not respond to the call to fund pilots but instead argued its products’ added value, saying it would not take measures to influence schools to upgrade. Steve Beswick, Microsoft director of Education said: “Both Vista and Office 2007 offer a number benefits, in terms of ‘ease of use’, to education institutions. However, schools have the choice to make this decision and will not be directed towards any unnecessary purchases or upgrades."

"We believe our solutions offer real value for money,” added Beswick. “While we will continue to work closely with Becta to review our licensing structures, it is important to note that schools don’t make any purchasing decisions based solely on cost – it is about quality and value: finding the right solution to meet the needs of both teachers and pupils. Microsoft offers free support and training materials to teachers and IT coordinators as well as a range of education programmes in the UK, which are designed to help teachers and students make the most of their technology.”

The Becta report follows an announcement in January 2006 of Becta's intention to review these products and sets out recommendations in relation to the adoption of Vista and Office 2007 and on issues related to interoperability between competitor products.

The Office 2007 review identified that there were over 170 new features in the product, but considered that many of them were of more use in a business rather than an educational context. “Recognising that many schools and colleges already have perfectly adequate office productivity solutions there would need to be a strong case to justify the necessary investment,” said Becta.

It compared Office 2007 with a range of competitor products and found that, although many of them delivered about 50% of the Office 2007 functionality, that was believed sufficient to meet or exceed the basic office productivity requirements of many schools.

Becta called on the ICT industry to ensure that computers for the education marketplace are delivered with a choice of Office productivity suites available, which ideally should include an open source offering. But it also said the ability for schools to exercise choice is further restricted by interoperability difficulties. It called on Microsoft to improve its support for the ODF interoperability standard.

Following the outcome of discussions with Microsoft and a range of stakeholders, Becta will produce a final report with recommendations by January 2008.