The Dutch Cartel Office (NMa) decides annually which sectors of the economy will get extra attention. Of course, the NMa is mostly interested in those sectors where market distortions have become too big to assure fair competition and pricing for consumers and organizations. Without a doubt the market for desktop software is highly distorted. For that reason it is puzzling that the NMa doesn’t mention the software market in it’s plans for 2008.
The 2008 plans are still open for debate, which makes it possible to influence the decision making process by our actions. For me that meant writing a letter to the NMa and ask it to adress the issue of the use of software in education and the influence that commercial parties have in the selection process. I decided to put the letter online in English as well. Should you agree with the arguments, please feel free to add your support by commenting here. Maybe it can even be of use in the country where you live.
When commenting I have but one request. The intention of the letter is not to bash Microsoft and/or Windows-based software, but to promote an investigation that will lead to a new form of ICT education on all levels where pupils, students and teachers get the skills to make informed decisions on the operating system and software they will use. It would be nice if Microsoft bashing isn’t the core of your comments.
Thank you for attention and support. The letter reads as follows:
Rotterdam, 15 November 2007
De Nederlandse Mededingingsautoriteit (NMa)
T.a.v. de heer mr. drs. H.J. Droppers
2500 BH Den Haag
Concerning: Agenda 2008
Dear mister Droppers,
With keen interest I read the Consultation Document for the NMa 2008 agenda. Unfortunately the agenda lacks attention for one of the most distorted markets of the moment: the software market in relation to educational institutions. With this letter I would like to reflect on various issues that warrant a closer inspection by your office.
In the past we have seen multiple cases where commercial companies offered to sponsor eduction and research or educational tools for schools. Within the framework of the Dutch educational system it has been debated numerous times whether such sponsoring wouldn’t harm the independence role that schools have as centers of learning. Most recently such a debate took place over the information package the Dutch government provided schools with a course about the Dutch mission in Uruzgan. The argument that commercial sponsoring both reduces the public cost of education and enhances the quality of certains courses has been considered insufficient in the light of possible commercial influence on present and future spending behavior by the children, the pupils and the students.
With this is mind it is extremely puzzling that the same critical attitude appears to be absent when considering the ICT-components in primary, secondary and higher education, even in ICT-education per se. No questions are asked whether the current monoculture of Windows and Windows-based software -that is offered at extremely low prices to educational institutions and pupils and students- is desirable and whether the public funds that are spend on it can be considered good investments. Currently those funds are used to support the virtual monopoly of Windows and Windows-based software on the market for computer end users.
At the moment ICT-training institutions on secondary and higher levels only marginally pay attention to alternatives for Windows-based solutions. These alternatives -among which Unix, BSD and Linux- have been integrated in the ICT-infrastructure of many companies, but future generations of admins -on various levels in the organizations- will no longer posses the knowledge and skills to manage them. At the same time, the future generations of CEO’s, board members, management, employees and consumers pnly get acquainted with Windows, Microsoft Office and other Windows-based software right now. If ICT-consultants will exist to consider and suggest the alternatives, they will meet a barrier of decision-makers that equate ICT with Windows-based solutions. The alternatives will be sucked into a black hole, a void of knowledge.
The institutions to train new teachers do pay attention to ICT-knowledge and skills by offering them the ECDL/ICDL program (Internation Computer Drivers License) in one form or another. The ECDL/ICDL curriculum in itself is consider vendor-neutral, but the accompanying instructions for students are far from neutral. Instructions like “you are required to use Word 2003 to complete this task” or “please create a Powerpoint presentation”. If you are not in the possession of this software, your are directed to Surfspot.
Surfsport offers commercial software to student at a 90% discount of the regular market price. At least, that is what is advertised. A quote from the Surfspot website:
Surfspot.nl is the ICT-webstore for students and employees of universities and schools for higher education, employees of primary education and (parents of) children, where they can buy official software and related ICT-goods at highly reduced prices.
Surfspot is part of an organization that is paid for by public funds.
If and when the debate turns to these extremely low prices and calls it a dumping practice, the argument is used that the marginal costs of software are almost nill and that pricing policies are context dependent. Maybe so, but when marketing the software to students, the official price is used as an indicator for the true market value. And we shouldn’t forget the license conditions that after finishing your education your right to use the software stops and you are obliged to buy a new license at current official prices. This practice results in three to four years of highly subsidized software use and an almost complete Windows-izations of the ICT-component in education, which in turns leads to a new group of educators in primary and secundary education with no knowledge with or skills in alternative software.
The schools themselves can buy their software licenses via Surfdiensten en APS ICT, again at far below current market prices. This seems a good way to spend public funds, but one wonders how much freedom schools have to acquire alternative software via these compulsory clearing houses. Both organizations currently force schools to buy software bundles of Windows and Microsoft Office, even if the latter is not desired. Educational publishers -to finish this point- only offer educational software that require the Windows operating system.
So, we have educational institutions for admins and teachers that train their students in Windows-related skills only, we have primary and secondary schools that train their pupils in Windows-related skills only, we have related clearing houses and webshops supported by public funds that dump Windows-based software only with future consumers. And we see a small group of commercial parties influencing to an extremely high degree the future demand for their own software via these institutes of learning. The current and future demand for commmercial software is highly influenced by their sponsoring of ICT-components in education.
The effects are felt throughout the entire economy. Business and organizations have virtually no other choice than to set up an ICT-infrastructure with Windows-based software. The costs for training your employees have been shifted to the educational system and your admins know perfectly how to click through a Windows-based environment. Of course, the license fees are much higher, but your organization should pay that. Well, not all companies and organizations apparently do that considering the reports of software piracy in the Netherland. Then again, the commercial software companies have their own police for that, the Business Software Alliance, that pro-actively goes after the companies that fall short in their license payments. Could it be a coincidence that BSA members are among the companies that sell their software in the educational market at reduced prices?
Market practices with such negative repercussions for a free market -in this case the market for software- deserve, in my opinion, a close and thorough inspection and -where needed- a strong governmental response to rectify the situation. The educational system most likely is part of the NMa mandate, but it’s economic relations with commercial parties and the long term effects of the resulting market distortions surely are.
Writer and Columnist