Universities and colleges could save about Pounds 10 million a year by switching from Microsoft desktop applications to cheaper alternatives, according to a report published today. Annual savings for a large institution could be more than Pounds 100,000.
Commissioned by the funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee, the report goes through the reasons given for sticking to Microsoft software, and demolishes them one by one. One of the biggest obstacles to switching, it concedes, is academics' notorious resistance to having change forced upon them.
The report was prepared by independent consultant Alan Robiette for JISC's technology applications sub-committee. Dr Robiette has been information technology director at Oxford University, Warwick University and most recently the London Business School.
From a purely technical point of view Microsoft, Lotus and Corel all have "highly competent contenders" for the basic desktop suite of word processor, spreadsheet, presentation package and database. All vendors offer academic deals far below normal commercial prices but in six examples calculated in the report, the cheapest deal is from Lotus or Corel. Institutions can compare cost of ownership for the big three suites,using the calculator at www.chest.ac.uk/general/forms/dtc.html The choices do not end there. Applix Office, originally a Unix suite, is now available for Windows 95, 98 and NT. Star Division's StarOffice is popular on the Linux platform but also available on Windows, Macintosh and Solaris.Students and others can download a free personal edition. The universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, and departments at Birmingham and Warwick have taken licences for StarOffice.
In the area of operating systems the study concludes that on Intel-architecture PCs there is no serious alternative to Microsoft's Windows products. Linux still cannot match the range of applications available for Windows, but the report says that within two years the open-source, Unix-like operating system could be a much more significant rival to Windows. Another potential challenger is Solaris, Sun's version of Unix, which is now available free for non-commercial use.
The study was prompted by fears that academic licence fees for Microsoft software were about to increase. Last year Microsoft began promoting Campus Agreement, a site licence scheme under which institutions pay an annual rental for the use of a bundle of software products. Microsoft says Campus Agreement is economical for institutions which standardise on its software. Many institutions felt they got better value under the volume-based Select 4 scheme. Select 4 prices were based either on the number of machines set up to run the software, or (with the option known as concurrency) the number of individuals allowed to use the software simultaneously.
The Select 4 contract has been extended after negotiations between Microsoft and the Combined Higher Education Software Team. Institutions can now sign up until November 30, 2001 although terms have not been made public.
Dr Robiette hopes that institutions will consider the financial arguments as well as intangible factors such as student attitudes. But he found that many IT staff did not want to think about it: "You could tell that they did not want to face the decision. They are the ones who will have to face the flak. What would be really interesting would be if in any institutions the financial officers begin to get the bit between their teeth."
Microsoft's competitors welcomed the report. Elizabeth Lawson, academic sales manager at Corel said: "It reinforces our message that there is an alternative and it is a cost effective alternative." Les O'Hara, business development manager at Lotus UK said: "Feature for feature there is not much between (the leading suites). It should come down to cost of ownership."
UNPICKING THE MICROSOFT LOCK
Why three institutions cannot easily switch Nottingham Trent University Locked into: Microsoft Exchange.
"Changing the email system for very large numbers of registered users is a daunting task."
Bretton Hall Locked into: Microsoft Word.
Revision of training materials, corporate style templates and major college documents "would require considerable effort".
Westhill College Locked into: Microsoft Office.
Retraining staff "more of a problem than students". Rewriting help sheets "would be a significant task, as the style of these relies on inclusion ofnumerous screen dumps".
Reasons given for staying with Microsoft, and the report's answers Academics and other staff will complain if forced to change.
Major office suites are so similar in style and features that the transition is far easier than the typical user would imagine.
Staff and potential recruits want to use the products which will make them employable when they leave. Students and prospective students want to use the products they will meet in the commercial environment when they graduate. Employers of graduating students will look for skills in those products.
Transferrable skills of staff and students could be improved by using other packages. It provides the opportunity to teach the philosophy behind the Windows interface. Users gain a deeper understanding and can master other packages with reduced training time.
Microsoft file formats are understood wherever you send your email or diskette.
Incompatibilities sometimes exist between versions of the same Microsoft application. As most other suppliers' products can import and export files in Microsoft formats, there is little advantage in using Microsoft applications. Solution: exchange files in portable formats (RTF, HTML or, in due course, XML).