Government ICT agency Becta appears to be moving towards burying the hatchet to end its two-year stand-off with US software giant Microsoft. It started when Becta discouraged schools from adopting the Vista operating system and the Office 2007 productivity package, and complained to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) about alleged interoperability of document files and unfair school licensing agreements.

Now Becta has welcomed Microsoft's "recent announcement on interoperability and the company’s plans to pilot new licensing arrangements designed to give additional choice and flexibility to schools..." And a statement on the Becta website reveals more of the organisation's concerns about licensing - rather than money - which also led it to refer its complaint to the European Commission earlier this year.

“These are very positive developments, responding to our concerns about the current arrangements,” said Becta chief executive Stephen Crowne this week.

While Becta's complaint to the OFT remains in place (the organisations are in discussions), and its evidence to the EC is still subject to an investigation, Becta's position is clearly ready for shifting should Microsoft convince it that it can "deliver" on the two sticking points.

The first is the elusive Open Document Format (ODF). The purpose of ODF is to ensure that documents created by any one Office software program should be easily readable by other programs. Microsoft has pledged support for ODF in its imminent release of Service Pack 2 for Microsoft Office 2007.

The second is the structure of Microsoft's licensing agreements. Here is how Becta explains it on its own website:

"What is important about this new Microsoft approach to licensing?

"The UK will pilot a new Microsoft licensing scheme that removes the requirement for schools using subscription agreements to pay Microsoft to licence systems that are using their competitors' technologies. So for the first time schools using Microsoft's subscription licensing agreements can decide for themselves how much of their ICT estate to licence.

"How will that help schools?

"Schools opting to use the pilot licensing programme can choose to stop paying Microsoft licence fees for Apple Mac or Linux computers which are not actually running any Microsoft software. Computers running open source products such as would also no longer attract Microsoft licensing fees. Importantly such schools will also be able to decline to licence products such as Vista on systems that are technically incapable of running it. There are also now options for schools to license based on the number of users, rather than the number of PCs, or a combination of the two."

If you were to deduce from those questions and answers that licence payers were spending more than they needed, that would not necessarily be correct. Licences are often catch-all to give users a free hand across a range of possibilities. They are better value for some than others. And the licensing pilot that Microsoft is undertaking will check out different possibilities to increase flexibility for schools.

Meanwhile Becta is advising schools to continue with their existing arrangements until detailed guidance is published later this year - if progress is good. (A new Software Licensing Agreement framework is due from Becta in October, along with advice at a future date from its Schools Open Source Project.)

Many bystanders will be relieved to see this spat resolved because schools and local authorities undergoing major changes and developments do not have the luxury of waiting for its resolution before making decisions about their own infrastructure and ICT resources for the future.

Microsoft is understandably positive about the thaw in relations as it sees the UK as a world leader in the use ICT in education. It says it will look at a range of options in the pilot, including the implications of using software at home to access schools' ICT systems, and will subsequently stage a global release of new licensing arrangements for education.

"Microsoft is pleased Becta has announced positive developments in response to its concerns about Microsoft’s schools licensing agreement and interoperability of our Office products," says Steve Beswick, Microsoft's UK director of education. "This is great news for schools as the new licensing programme enables them to expand their user base with fewer up-front cost. Consistent with our Interoperability Principles, yesterday’s announcement also demonstrates how we are offering customers greater choice and more flexibility among document formats in Office."

More information

Becta's full announcement at:

ODF at Wikipedia