UK Open Standards Consultation Submission
Published 14:23, 28 February 12
Somewhat belatedly (apologies), here is the second part of my analysis of the UK government's Open Standards consultation. As well as a quick look at the remaining two chapters, I include my responses to individual questions at the end.
Chapter 2 is entitled "Open standards mandation", and concerns the practicalities of how open standards should be required:
This section of the consultation document focuses on the policy for mandation of standards and considers the following issues:
The meaning of mandation in this context
The circumstances when open standards or profiles built on open standards should be mandated
The selection of a single standard or multiple standards where competing standards exist
The governance associated with the adoption and lifecycle of standards and how to handle new versions
Legacy systems and their compatibility with compulsory open standards
The proposed policy in a nutshell is as follows:
For all IT spend approval applications submitted to the Cabinet Office, government bodies must demonstrate compliance with open standards and compulsory open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats or provide evidence of the need for divergence with an analysis of the impact.
That seems reasonable. For example, it's conceivable that open standards aren't adopted because they don't exist in a very specialised domain, and so it would be meaningless to try to make them compulsory. However, it's important that the reasons for not adopting open standards are available for public scrutiny so that such decisions don't simply get swept under the carpet.
The final chapter, on "International alignment" is about making sure that the UK's open standards policy is compatible with EU rules. Since I don't have anything helpful to say here, I won't be replying to this section's questions. It's interesting, though, that the first of those mentions the ill-fated European Interoperability Framework v2, whose baleful influence lingers on.
All-in-all, the UK government's consultation on open standards is thorough and sensible. I urge you to respond to those questions that interest you. The good news is that this is now extremely easy to do: each of the three chapters has a corresponding Web page where you can enter your answers directly. You can also view other people's responses, which is helpful for bringing up issues you might have otherwise overlooked. I have included my responses below, but you can also view them online.
How does this definition of open standard compare to your view of what makes a standard 'open'?
The usual definition for an open standard (for example, as defined by W3C) involves Restriction-Free use of any claimed patents. The use here of the "non-discriminatory promise of non-assertion" is interesting. I think the devil will be in the details: it's important that there aren't loopholes that would somehow allow patent holders to assert their claims regardless.
What will the Government be inhibited from doing if this definition of open standards is adopted for software interoperability, data and document formats across central government?
Given the big get-out clause "unless there are clear business reasons why this is inappropriate" in the specification of open standards, I don't think the Government will be inhibited at all.
For businesses attempting to break into the government IT market, would this policy make things easier or more difficult - does it help to level the playing field?
In theory, this will make it easier for small businesses, say, to offer solutions based on open standards, since lock-in will be diminished. But in practice that depends on opening up procurement - at the moment, big companies completely dominate, not least because the process is complicated and expensive. Open standards on their own won't solve this, but are a necessary precondition.
Would this policy support innovation, competition and choice in delivery of government services?
One of the key benefits of open standards is that they move competition - and hence innovation - up a level. They also provide a level playing field for that higher-level innovation, which again will tend to promote keener competition. Both of these are advantageous for government services.
In what way do software copyright licences and standards patent licences interact to support or prevent interoperability?
Patents are intellectual monopolies; by their very nature they are about exclusion. This necessarily makes them problematic for open standards, which are about inclusion. The success of the Internet, which is built on open standards, with patents made available on a Restriction-Free basis, shows the benefits of this approach.
How could adopting (Fair) Reasonable and Non Discriminatory ((F)RAND) standards deliver a level playing field for open source and proprietary software solution providers?
They will not. FRAND standards are not generally compatible with leading free software licences like the GNU GPL, since even a small per-user fee is impossible to reconcile with the free distribution of open source. Thus FRAND standards necessarily tilt the playing field in favour of proprietary software, where a tally of copies can be kept for the purpose of paying licensing fees.
Does selecting open standards which are compatible with a free or open source software licence exclude certain suppliers or products?
Truly open standards that are compatible with a free or open source software licence do not mandate how software is written: it is perfectly possible to support open standards with proprietary software. That is why such open standards create a level playing field, unlike those which permit FRAND licensing.
Does a promise of non-assertion of a patent when used in open source software alleviate concerns relating to patents and royalty charging?
This really is the key question. The problem is that it is easy to imagine such promises being hedged around with conditions that look reasonable, but which in practice make it hard to create open source software based on those standards.
My particular concern is that a promise could be drawn up that was compatible with some open source licences, but not others - for example the GNU GPL. This would allow such pseudo-open standards to discriminate among open source licences, while being able to claim that they were compatible with open source in general.
The optimum solution, then, would be to require that all patents are offered on a Restriction-Free basis (that is, no conditions implied.) This is not, as is sometimes claimed, unfair on patent holders. After all, for a company to have its patents included as part of an open standard already gives it a big advantage, because it places that company's work and products at the heart of the field. This means that it will be able to develop future products more easily than competitors, and it will also be able to steer future directions with more authority. So it is only fair that in return for these competitive advantages it should make the basic technology freely available under an RF licence.
Should a different rationale be applied when purchasing off-the-shelf software solutions than is applied when purchasing bespoke solutions?
No, but it's worth noting that open standards might be an additional reason to use bespoke solutions if there is a choice. For the latter, open standards can be mandated, without compromise. In addition, all bespoke solutions commissioned by the UK government can - and should - be released as open source, allowing its benefits to be spread more widely.
In terms of standards for software interoperability, data and document formats, is there a need for the Government to engage with or provide funding for specific committees/bodies?
One of the problems with standards bodies is that some are still locked in old-style thinking. It would be helpful if the UK government could engage with all relevant standards bodies and encourage them to embrace truly open standards as the next stage in the evolution of standardisation. Providing funding might be one way of concentrating their minds.
What criteria should the Government consider when deciding whether it is appropriate to mandate particular standards?
The main issue is whether there are truly open standards. If there are, then mandate them. If there aren't, other standards will need to be examined on a case-by-case basis.
What effect would mandating particular open standards have on improving value for money in the provision of government services?
Open standards will create level playing fields, with two main benefits. First, greater competition initially, and secondly, a greater ease of swapping suppliers later on. Avoiding lock-in puts the government in a far stronger position when it comes to renegotiating deals.
Could mandation of competing open standards for the same function deliver interoperable software and information at reduced cost?
The whole point of open standards is to allow like-for-like competition. If different solutions are supporting two different standards, that is not possible. Competing open standards would be counterproductive.
Could mandation of open standards promote anti-competitive behaviour in public procurement?
I don't really see how they could, since they are designed to promote such competitive behaviour.
How should the Government best deal with the issue of change relating to legacy systems or incompatible updates to existing open standards?
First of all, it is important to bear in mind that all such legacy systems have significant exit costs. These must be paid at some time, and so the issue then becomes when and how. If there are equivalent solutions based around open standards, then moving sooner rather than later makes sense, for all the reasons noted above. If there are no truly open standards yet, there is less compelling reason to move off legacy systems.
What should trigger the review of an open standard that has already been mandated?
There are a number of obvious events: open standards losing support; collapse of standards process; new open standards emerging.
How should the Government strike a balance between nurturing innovation and conforming to standards?
There's no real tension. Most of the rapid innovation takes place above the level of open standards, while the standards themselves evolve relatively slowly. Open standards create the pre-conditions for innovation to happen more easily.