British schools should not upgrade to Microsoft's Vista operating system and Office 2007 productivity suite, the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA) said in a report on the software. It also supported use of the international standard ODF (Open Document Format) for storing files.
Schools might consider using Vista if rolling out all-new infrastructure, but should not introduce it piecemeal alongside other versions of Windows, or upgrade older machines, said the agency, which is responsible for advising British schools and colleges on their IT use.
"We have not had sight of any evidence to support the argument that the costs of upgrading to Vista in educational establishments would be offset by appropriate benefit," it said.
The cost of upgrading Britain's schools to Vista would be £175 million, around a third of which would go to Microsoft, the agency said. The rest would go on deployment costs, testing and hardware upgrades, it said.
Even that sum would not be enough to purchase graphics cards capable of displaying Windows Aero Graphics, although that's no great loss because "there was no significant benefit to schools and colleges in running Aero," it said.
As for Office 2007, "there remains no compelling case for deployment," the agency said in its full report, published this week.
The agency was equally skeptical about the benefits of Vista and Office 2007 last January, when it published an interim report based on its evaluation of beta versions of the new software. Then, it advised that the added value of Vista's new features was not sufficient to justify the cost of deployment, while Office 2007 contained no "must-have" features.
In this year's report, BECTA warned schools that do choose to use Office 2007 to avoid Microsoft's OOXML (Office Open XML) document format because of concerns about compatibility between different applications - even though interoperability is one of the benefits Microsoft claims for the format.
It called on schools to make teachers, parents and pupils more aware of free alternatives to Microsoft's products, and asked the IT industry to facilitate their use.
The agency also recommended setting up desktops to make it easy to use such open-source applications, and advised schools to insist their suppliers deliver office productivity software that can open and save ODF documents, setting it as the default file format.
However, it slammed Microsoft for dragging its feet with incorporating support for ODF in Office 2007.
"While the product includes the functionality to read virtually every other relevant file format 'out of the box', the processes for dealing with ODF files are very cumbersome," BECTA wrote.
In addition, it said, ODF file converters provided by Microsoft are not intuitive because they behave differently from the regular file save dialogues.
"We believe that these arrangements present sufficient technical difficulties for the majority of users to make them disinclined to use competitor products and this may weaken competition," the agency said.
Finally, the Becta report also urged that pupils, teachers and parents should be made aware of the wide range of free-to-use products currently available and on how to use and access them.