Microsoft Office vs in UK education

Yesterday I took a seminar with a small number of people from schools and colleges in the UK, who had purchasing responsibility for software.

I talked about some of the history, differences between the products, the ISO standardisation wars, the ribbon, and the way Microsoft’s pricing escalates in order to charge the maximum to business users. I also mentioned online alternatives like Google docs and asked whether they could contemplate switching entirely to a web-based productivity suite.

It is always interesting talking to people with a real-world perspective, in contrast to the hothouse of Internet discussions and attempting to follow what is happening at the bleeding edge. What I found:

  • These folk knew about but none use it regularly themeselves; one had a reasonable number of students using it, but only because they were using netbooks running Linux. Not very encouraging for since the buzz is that netbooks are increasingly switching to Windows.
  • There was very little interest in ISO standards. On the other hand, there was real concern about interoperability, which is related. However, the best solution at the moment is to use Microsoft’s old binary formats throughout. Filters in MS office for OpenDocument, and in for Open XML, will be welcome.
    Incidentally, I used Office 2007 PowerPoint for the session. I tried to open the .pptx in 3.0; it worked, but there were extra borders round objects and some unwanted text. I saved from Office 2007 as .ppt, re-opened in It was perfect.
  • Some had already rolled out Office 2007, and reported that the Ribbon UI was better for new users, but caused problems for some who were familiar with the old menus. Mainly a training issue.
  • Education gets generous pricing for MS Office. There was interest in saving money by using, but the sums involved are relatively small. We discussed the ethical issue – whether it is right to get young people hooked on a product that will cost them or their businesses dearly later on – but this particular group didn’t engage with this much. Little desire to change the world; focused on getting their work done.
  • I mentioned the negative Becta report on Vista and Office 2007, which I also looked at again in preparation. I was struck again by what a poor report it is, ducking important issues and giving a rose-tinted view of ODF, though I am in sympathy with Becta’s efforts to promote choice and open source in education. However, none of this group had read the report, or even heard of it. Becta is a government organization focused on technology in education.
  • There was little enthusiasm for web-based office suites. Interest perked up a little when I mentioned Google Gears and the possibility of seamless online/offline use. One person said his school was rural and could not get broadband at all.

My overall impression is that Microsoft Office remains dominant in the institutions represented by this group, and that seems unlikely to change soon. The web-based suites have more chance of breaking the habit, since they represent a more fundamental shift than simply moving from one fat desktop application to another.

I would likely have got a better attendance for a seminar on rolling out Office 2007.

6 thoughts on “Microsoft Office vs in UK education”

  1. This is very interesting. Some of your conclusions I might have guessed, but it’s good to have them confirmed. I work for a charity which has a sister organisation in the US. They get office licenses donated by MS employees, so for us it’s effectively free and there’s no incentive to consider anything else.

    I think overall although the bleeding edge of technology is changing all the time, the rest of the world has much more momentum, and the Office ship is a slow one to turn.

  2. Very interesting indeed. As I see it, the problem is that a large organisation, such as my university, must retain complete compatibility with external contacts, so at least some users need to have MS Office. Installing Open Office for other users would then create a slew of compatibility and training issues within the organisation, which is too horrible to contemplate. Web-based software doesn’t actually address this either, so any change is going to have to come from the home market. If and when enough people use Open Office (or other non MS package) at home, corporations (particular Education & public sector) will follow.

  3. When I was at university all the major banks tried to give me an account. The account I signed up for then I have today (some 20 years later) so I guess their strategy worked…

    I guess Microsoft do the same thing in education… Shame that OOo can’t make in roads now, in 5 years it could change the office suite landscape when students become employees and decision makers!!!


  4. My university has had OpenOffice on the standard Windows desktop, used by all our 30,000+ students, for 2 or 3 years. It is alongside MS Office, as an alternative, rather than a replacement. Students and staff seem quite happy to switch between the two suites, using whichever is best for particular activities. There are compatibility issues, but they aren’t unmanageable, and there is little need for training: OO is fairly straightforward. An extra advantage is that we can use OO as a work-around for undesirable “features” in MS Office.

  5. An interesting read.
    Many organisations are now looking for alternatives that are smaller, easier to license and provide consistency/compatibility for existing and emerging document standards.
    However, one of the largest issues surrounding a migration to an alternative suite is the time taken to retrain users to become familiar.
    May I suggest taking a look at Kingsoft Office 2009. It provides 100% compatibility but is designed specially for situations such as this.
    It is new and solves many of the problems outlined here.

  6. We have extremely positive experience with OpenOffice 3.0 by our lawyers in office – it has great support of MS-DOC format (readwrite) and build-in possibility to generate PDF out of OpenWriter.

    For small and middle size companies it’s a way to go.

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