Becta’s report on Vista and Office 2007: wise advice, or mere polemic?

I read Becta’s report on Vista and Office. Becta is a UK government agency supporting IT in education. The report is a ponderous affair and tells us that XP still works, so why bother with Vista; and that Office 2007 saves by default in a tiresome new format that few other applications can open; and that free office suites like Open Office work well so why pay for something else?

All this is fair enough; but I’m surprised that Becta didn’t spot a couple of other things. One is that Office 2007 can easily be set to save by default in the old Office binary formats that pretty much everything can read. The other is that while ODF is indeed an ISO standard, it is also pretty awkward from a compatibility point of view.* So I’m surprised by this recommendation:

When specifying new systems, schools and colleges should normally insist on the desktop having access to office productivity software that is capable of opening, editing and saving documents in the international standard ODF, and setting it as the default file format.

I suppose the idea is that if kids come home with their homework on a USB key and find that their documents will not open on the home PC running Microsoft Office, that they just download and install Open Office. Fair enough I suppose; but why not just use .doc and .xls?

The report adds:

Becta did not conduct technical assessments of the merits of either the existing international document standard (ODF) or the proposed second international document standard (OOXML).

There is however a lengthy discussion of the inadequacies of the half-baked ODF converter add-in which Microsoft has sponsored. I agree; but I’m not sure why it merits so much space.

I would have found it interesting to see a bit more examination of the merits or otherwise of the ribbon UI in Office 2007; better, worse, or indifferent for education? What about overall usability and functionality versus Open Office? It would also have been good if Becta had considered the large market share Microsoft Office enjoys, especially in business. Like it or not, it is relevant to this discussion.

I didn’t see much attention given to security, which is perhaps the biggest single reason for adopting Vista versus XP (it could also be a reason not to use Windows at all). This is not only a matter of Vista being more secure, if it is, but also that it aims to fix the insecurity of Windows long-term by fostering well-behaved applications that will enable future versions of Windows to be more tightly locked-down. Not interesting in education? I’m surprised, since when I talk to IT people in education, security is one of their chief concerns.

I find myself wondering whether this is really a document aiming to offer wise and objective guidance to schools, or a more polemical report promoting ODF and open source in education.

I reckon there is a good case for promoting open source in education. However, considered as a report on Vista and Office 2007 this is a poor effort.

*PS: It is interesting to see what Asus has done with its Eee PC, which  actually gets an oblique mention in Becta’s report:

We have also noted the emergence of low-cost innovative ‘mini-notebooks’ that have been brought to the market running a version of Linux and a range of Linux-based applications including OpenOffice.org.

On my review Eee, which was supplied by RM for the education market, Open Office is set to save in the Microsoft formats by default. I imagine that Asus wanted to make the Eee fit seamlessly into a Microsoft environment if necessary. It must have been a conscious decision, since an untweaked Open Office install uses the Open Document formats by default.

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9 thoughts on “Becta’s report on Vista and Office 2007: wise advice, or mere polemic?”

  1. I just want to pick up on one point you make. You say “I suppose the idea is that if kids come home with their homework on a USB key and find that their documents will not open on the home PC running Microsoft Office, that they just download and install Open Office.”

    I have actually done some work in local primary schools offering IT support to lessons as part of my firm’s community outreach activities. One of the schools I went to was in a very poor part of Loughborough. The kids were uniformly lovely, and I enjoyed greatly supporting them during their lessons. What I didn’t enjoy was having to explain to a bitterly disappointed eight-year-old why the document she had been working on had ‘disappeared’ from the 3 1/2″ floppy disk that she was given to store her coursework at the beginning of the year, along with the rest of the class (and which had suddenly become corrupted).

    Many schools run antiquated hardware and have inadequate policies in place to support their pupils’ work (which is just as important as the work that I do for my company). If the choice boils down to spending money on software, or saving that money and using the savings to bring the computing environment up to an adequate security standard, I know which I’d go for. The choice of document format pales into insignificance by comparison.

  2. The choice of document format pales into insignificance by comparison.

    Yes, this is what is really odd about Becta’s report, supposedly about Vista and Office 2007, but in reality heavily weighted towards ODF vs OOXML. Hijacked by lobbyists?

    Tim

  3. In the interests of balance they could have mentioned OpenOffice’s general bugginess (and the lead time for fixes) or its flakiness when handling large documents. They could, if they were targetting departmental setups, also have mentioned the excellent interoperability between MS Office and Sharepoint Services, which makes it ideal for managing a school’s important reports. Or the huge range of educational resources already available on the Internet as Word documents.

    I happen to live with a teacher. She uses MS Office an awful lot, probably as much as I do. Not once have I heard her utter a complaint about an interoperability issue.

  4. Isn’t the problem with document formats the lack of backward compatibility with Office 2007’s Open XML standard and earlier incarnations of the Microsoft product? If school’s start using OXML and kids take documents home won’t they have problems if they don’t have Office 2007?

  5. If school’s start using OXML and kids take documents home won’t they have problems if they don’t have Office 2007?

    That’s why I suggested that setting Office 2007 to save by default in the old binary formats is an important consideration. Do that and there won’t be a problem.

    Tim

  6. Something else I forgot to mention: there is an Office Compatibility Pack which is freely available and allows versions of Word, Excel etc back to 2000 to open the new file formats: I know because I’ve done it myself.

    The ODF vs. OOXML issue looks more of a hobbyhorse than it ever did.

  7. I sincerely hope that none of the above respondees are teaching my child.

    PS Where can I get a free copy of this “MS Office” thingy, so that my child can complete his homework?

    PPS “Open XML” is incorrect. Microsoft Office Open XML format is neither “Open” nor “XML”.

  8. Neil

    You don’t need MS Office to work with the Microsoft binary formats. Open Office works well with these, in my experience.

    Tim

  9. “I sincerely hope that none of the above respondees are teaching my child.”

    Depends if you live in Loughborough: most of the parents there are more concerned about how much extra individual attention a volunteer like me can give their kid. They don’t give a sick dog’s dump about ODF vs. OOXML. They tend to leave obsessing about that issue to people who tend to have nothing better to get exercised about.

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