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Microsoft ‘tax’ on Linux in schools must end says Becta

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Dr Stephen Lucey joined Becta in 2000 and is now their Executive Director (Strategic Technologies). Becta is the Government organisation with oversight of all things ICT in UK schools.

Apart from being a general advocate for ICT in schools, it is charged with providing strategic leadership, technical direction and advice on obtaining best value.

Becta has recently shown that it is unafraid of speaking out on behalf of schools. Unhappy with the value for money schools were getting regarding software licencing they first referred Microsoft to the government’s Office of Fair Trading then sent shock waves through schools when it issued its advice not to upgrade to Windows Vista or Office 2007.

Becta has consistently maintained an interest and a monitoring brief on the progress of Open Source software in education and this interview explores some of their current thinking.

With regard to Becta's recent advice to schools referred to in the introduction, do you think that a respite from the upgrade cycle will cause more schools to consider FOSS as an alternative?

SL: Well the key message in our advice to schools, colleges and other FE providers in relation to Vista and Office 2007, based on extensive research, was that there were no “must have” benefits to compensate for the considerable costs of upgrading. The days of educational institutions just “chasing” the latest release of a product are hopefully, long gone. ICT investments must be based on an assessment of how they will help the institution deliver its educational vision in a cost effective and sustainable way. So I hope our advice will encourage more institutions to think carefully about their ICT spending priorities, and examine the full range of choices that are available to them.

Will this help Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)? Debatable - some educational institutions have an attachment to the philosophy underpinning FOSS, and will adopt it for those reasons. However most institutions do not purchase ICT solutions on the basis of a software development methodology, but on the basis of what best meets their needs. So the major opportunity for FOSS will be via solution providers who can integrate them into an offering which is seen as an overall solution.

To what extent do you feel that modern school ICT reflects vendor-driven change rather than a needs-driven agenda?

SL: I think this is less true nowadays than it was in the past. Educational institutions are developing a more critical understanding of their needs. The move to functional specifications as the mechanism for defining requirements either in Becta’s Frameworks or in BSF procurements is really helping this process. This approach requires the institution to think much more carefully about what it is procuring than would have been the case otherwise. Additionally we have established a Consultancy Framework Agreement. Through this educational institutions and Local Authorities can get access to high calibre advice on how best to frame their requirements.

This helps ensure that their ICT systems support their educational vision, and are not unduly driven by what the vendor wants to sell. The best vendors in the marketplace really understand that their interests are best served by providing solutions that positively impact on the institution's needs as opposed to those which are just easy to sell.

It would seem self-evident that FOSS should be very beneficial to schools with regard to value for money, and indeed one of your reports a few years ago confirmed this potential. To date however FOSS has made only modest inroads into the education sector. What do you think is the main reason for this?

SL: I have no doubt about the increasing potential of FOSS. However I think one of the critical limiting issues is that we do not have accurate data on the extent of use of FOSS based products and services so we are not really sure of how and where they are being effectively used.

If we are to increase competition and choice in the marketplace we need to understand where products and services are being used successfully and where they are not. So for example we need better data that lets us understand the FOSS uptake as the desktop operating system, as desktop applications, on school based servers, in internet and email connectivity etc. For each of those segments we need to know what is being done, what the ICT supply side is considering and what Becta needs to do to help that competitive opportunity develop. We have some interesting ideas here and hope to develop a significant debate with the sector later this year.

Also, the regulatory framework needs to be right. At the licensing level, we need to address situations where the marketplace is foreclosed to FOSS, and at the interoperability level we need to make sure that there is a true level playing field. We have been able to address some of these challenges via discussion with the supply side directly, and reach an agreed way forward. In other cases, we have had to call on the competition authorities. So a range of issues to address, but real progress is being made.

Do you think that the differences between FOSS and proprietary software are understood by school buyers, or indeed do you think that this matters in any way at all?

SL: No I do not think such differences are well understood by schools, nor for the most part do I think they need to be. The point at which they do need to be understood is at the point where the school’s statement of requirements is being turned into a technical solution.

For example, when planning new ICT provision, an educational institution might have a requirement that says it wants to assist in reducing the digital divide by being able to legally provide copies of the office productivity software it uses to pupils and parents for no additional cost.

When the ICT supply side comes to offer solutions to this requirement it needs to understand that this request is more likely to be met by FOSS software than by a proprietary offering and reflect this in their proposal back to the institution.

Since you joined Becta, its main achievement surely must have been to bring order to the ICT procurement chaos that previously existed in schools. This was achieved in great part by the introduction of the Procurement Frameworks. Would you agree with that statement and do you feel now that there is a danger that domination by a few major suppliers will stifle innovation which invariably comes from smaller companies?

SL: We have made good progress in recent years but we have further to go. Framework agreements underpinned by effective functional and technical standards are a major part of our work. They are also a key tool in helping ensure an effective marketplace that works to the advantage of all educational institutions and ultimately of learners. We review our functional and technical standards annually to ensure they are current and reflect the changes taking place in a fast moving environment and make best use of available open standards.

We also need to ensure that our Frameworks identify suppliers who satisfy our defined service standards and are able to provide compliant solutions rather than then just being a list of approved products.

We also review each of our frameworks regularly to ensure that they meet the needs of their users and offer value for money. The UK has one of, if not the most vibrant and dynamic educational ICT marketplaces in the world, so I think that domination by a single supplier or a small group of suppliers is increasingly unlikely.

All our procurements are conducted in strict accordance with EU regulations with all the attendant openness and guarantees of equitable treatment to all bidders. But that doesn’t mean we don’t get accused of being secretive. In fact, we have a website dedicated to explaining how our Frameworks operate and we are more than happy to answer questions put to us.

On the issue of innovation, I do not really think one can automatically argue that innovation “invariably” comes from smaller companies. For example, the Asus PC is an example of an innovative product within education – Asus had a reported turnover in 2007 of $6.9 billion! Now that is not to say we do not value small companies – we do. Latest figures indicate that SMEs form about 99% of UK companies so they are a very important part of the economy and the ICT in education marketplace.

This is reflected by the fact that SMEs form a high proportion of the companies on our Frameworks. In some Frameworks this proportion would be as high as 70%, and overall SMEs make up over 60% of the companies on our Frameworks. But Frameworks are not the only mechanism we can use to ensure effective competition and help SMEs operate in the sector.

Ensuring effective interoperability is another important tool. So for example when we published our MIS and Value for Money report in 2005 we were clear that improved interoperability arrangements were crucial. We identified SIF, tailored to UK needs as the most likely way forward. Now encouragingly we were able to bring together a community of interest which was wide ranging, involving the dominant supplier, to agree a way forward on SIF that is acceptable. So in that instance we did not need to seek the intervention of the competition regulator.

Unfortunately that was not the case with document interoperability in the office productivity space, where despite considerable efforts, interoperability arrangements remain unacceptable. So in October 2007 when it became clear we were not making progress we moved to refer the issue to the UK Office of Fair Trading as part of a formal complaint.

In January 2008 the European Commission launched its own investigation into this issue, covering similar ground, and we have now intervened directly with the Commission to ensure that the interoperability matters we had initially referred to the OFT (including implications for the digital divide and mitigating against effective Home School links), are now addressed by the Commission's new investigation. But intervention via the competition authorities is not our preferred approach. Ideally we want to work in partnership with the industry and we are doing so in a range of ways. We welcome the recent formation of SALTIS (Suppliers Association for Learning Technology and Interoperability in Schools) and look forward to working with them.

Open source companies often complain long and loud about being shut out from the frameworks. Do you think they have some justification or do you feel frustration when you hear this and tend to feel that in fact with regard to trading with schools, Open Source companies can be their own worst enemies?

SL: Well I’m not sure I would go as far as frustration, but it’s obviously a disappointment when any category of potential suppliers feels that they are not able to compete effectively in the marketplace. Becta’s ambition is a vibrant and competitive marketplace that is providing high quality, innovative products and services that all learning providers value, can afford and can depend upon. At every layer of our National Digital Infrastructure (institutional infrastructure and home access, connectivity, data services and learning services) OSS solutions have a role to play and I am keen that they play it.

Indeed if the general ICT marketplace is anything to go by it will be an increasing role. So to the extent that Open Source companies want to compete, and Becta wants to promote competition, we have a shared agenda. Now I know you might not think that’s the case judging from some of the (not entirely accurate) blogging out there but I want to get beyond that level of debate. I want an ongoing professional and constructive dialogue with the open source community helping us to understand the issues and where possible put in place appropriate actions.

This should help make OSS products and related services a more compelling offering for educational institutions. And that helps competition. I believe that our frameworks do allow such competition, but it’s not really what I think that counts, it’s what suppliers that want to compete think. So we are having a careful look at our arrangements, talking to key users of our Frameworks like BSF. We will also be developing our dialogue with the wider industry and the OSS community about the uptake of OSS, looking to see how we can improve the overall competitive climate.

I know you are keen that more use of technology is made by teachers and students. Do you think that the emergence of the ultra-low cost notebooks such as RM's minibook and the Elonex One will help drive up the use of ICT?

SL: Yes I think that they have certainly a role to play in improving access and addressing digital divide issues. These devices have really captured the interest of the wider consumer market, not just the educational market and I expect to see further innovation in that space sooner rather than later. They bring together an interesting combination of a new form factor - a Linux based operating system, OpenOffice.org as the productivity suite and at an attractive price point. They are therefore likely to ensure more users experience an open source product that just “does what it says on the tin” and from a competition perspective that is good news.

But they also reinforce the importance of the issues we have referred to the competition regulator. This relates to circumstances where schools using Microsoft’s School Agreement licensing model, are required to pay Microsoft licensing fees for computers based on Linux, or using OpenOffice.org. Finding ourselves in a position whereby a school pays (say) £169 for a device only to be faced with for example a £30 per year after year payment to Microsoft, for a system that is not running any of their software would just not be acceptable to Becta. Indeed I don’t think many people would consider that fair.

So whilst a number of suppliers are innovating and bringing new OSS based products to the marketplace, Becta must act decisively to ensure that neither they nor schools are disadvantaged by restrictive licensing agreements imposed by a dominant player.

Looking to the future once again, schools have a target of being carbon neutral by 2016. Given the complexity and power of modern school ICT systems how is Becta helping them to achieve this target?

SL: DCSF has set a target that all new school build should be carbon neutral by 2016, with the added intention that by 2020 all schools will be ‘sustainable schools’. Clearly the greater use of technology and the introduction of longer school days have the potential to raise energy consumption just at the time when we are trying to reduce them. So Becta in conjunction with its partners intends to help in a number of ways.

Firstly by working to increase the extent to which energy compliant products are procured and used by educational institutions. Secondly we will work to ensure that the energy efficient features of existing products are effectively used. We will also help with advice on how to use technology to help educational institutions reduce their environmental impact. Lastly but by no means least we will help institutions ensure that they reduce their use of IT related consumables.

We are becoming more active in this area and have useful guidance for schools online. At BETT this year we had a seminar on ICT and Environmental Sustainability and yes before you ask – it can be downloaded in Open Document Presentation Format.

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