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Even the unadventurous Israeli education system may soon discover that there is (computerized) life after Microsoft. The country's schools will forgo Word and Windows in favor of parallel programs from Sun Microsystems. For the first time, the education system's tenders committee has authorized cooperation in principle with Sun, in a move that could undermine Microsoft's sovereignty in Israeli classrooms.

Under the agreement, cooperation between the educational institutions in Israel and Sun will be in effect for three years, with the option of a two-year extension. Within this framework, Sun will help integrate new programs for use by schools, will partially underwrite the required teacher training, and will also help establish new computer laboratories.

"This is the biggest threat yet to the Microsoft monopoly," says a knowledgeable source.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir also welcomed the change: "We appreciate very much the cooperation with Microsoft, but it is important that we also create options with other companies," she said this week.

In 2004 the Education Ministry signed a five-year agreement with Microsoft worth NIS 45 million. Under the agreement, the company's software was used in all the education system's institutions, from kindergartens to schools to the education directorates of local governments.

Schools and teachers were able to use and upgrade their operating systems, servers, e-mail program and other applications. For Microsoft, the investment in the education system has a clear advantage: Schoolchildren are exposed to its software and become accustomed to it - and not to the open source software of other companies, among then Sun. As they go through life, they may well prefer Microsoft products.

But all that could now change. According to a computer teacher in a Tel Aviv high school, "even though the software world offers a multitude of alternatives, to date we have used Microsoft products almost exclusively. That is very frustrating, not least because in some cases the open source developments are better than those of the closed source."

This teacher says that following the agreement with Sun, "schools will find it legitimate to use additional products and work environments. What this means is that if we expose students properly to the range of options, they may prefer non-Microsoft products in the future."