UK Government Consultation on Open Standards

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In February this year, the UK Government (specifically the Cabinet Office - the bit of government that essentially runs the government itself) began a new consultation on the issue of Open Standards. This follows on from their earlier consultation on this issue as well as extensive work within the European Union (see the Wikipedia article: European Interoperability Framework). It's an ongoing discussion in Britain and elsewhere as there are a number of factors to try and reconcile:

  • governments are very big consumers of IT equipment;
  • governments, like everyone, need to reduce their costs;
  • governments have a duty to create an environment that is supportive of business interests.

This specific consultation is on the proposed definition and mandation of open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats in government IT. Following the general principle of comply or explain, if implemented, UK government departments would be obliged to include support for open standards in any IT system they bought or explain publicly why such standards were not cited in the procurement process.

There's a lot to pick apart there. For a start, what is an open standard? The W3C definition is most clearly set out in this Wikipedia article where the primary focus is on the process by which the standard is defined. There is general consensus that it is that that defines the openness more than the kind of license that is attached to it. Also, as is clear, if an argument can be made that a non-open standard is a better solution to a defined problem then that non-open approach remains acceptable.

But check one more detail. The policy would only apply to software interoperability, data and document formats. That's why W3C is being very supportive of this policy proposal in our submission - it's on 'our patch.' If the consultation were about hardware patents or other areas beyond the scope of the Web then clearly we would have no interest. But software interoperability, data and document formats is very much what we do.

As part of the consultation process, the Cabinet Office has held a series of round table discussions that have been attended primarily by organizations with a specific interest. Other standards bodies, IT providers large and small, and legal professionals, have all attended these events and argued their case. The mood of the two events I have attended has been generally, but not wholly, supportive. The fear is that proprietary systems — i.e. IT systems not based on open standards — might be a better solution than any based on open standards. That's true of course — they might. However, the procurement of such a system would surely lead to vendor lock in where a given vendor effectively becomes the only possible future bidder because they're the only ones that can work with the system in place. That means that the number of companies that can innovate around that particular area is exactly one.

The demand for open standards eliminates such a possibility and levels the playing field so that SMEs as well as large enterprise can offer highly competitive solutions that are interoperable with everyone else's. For software interoperability, data and document formats it seems the sensible and pragmatic approach to take. In terms of data, XML and RDF both support established technology stacks with a plethora of tools both open source and proprietary. These work perfectly with the Web's 'native' document format of HTML which is being extended into the most powerful interactive multimedia publishing platform ever seen — HTML5.

A lot of the debate around the consultation concerns licensing. W3C Recommendations are all published with a royalty free license. You are free to implement any of our standards without paying anyone anything but this is not true for all open standards. In many sections of the IT industry, notably mobile telecommunications, the development of a standard is ultimately funded by the royalty payments received by its developers. This is a perfectly valid business model where the standards are implemented as part of a product that is sold.

Such a model is not appropriate for software interoperability, data and document formats. It is the open standards, published under a royalty free license, that has lead to the explosion of innovation in software and services that characterizes the World Wide Web. A healthy and competitive market exists between browsers that can render content produced by countless Web developers, content management systems, publishing platforms, eCommerce and digital distribution systems - the Web proves that in the areas of direct interest to this consultation, the use of open standards, preferably published under royalty free terms, is an enormous engine for innovation.

How else does a 21st century government expect to communicate directly with its citizens and for them to participate directly in decisions and initiatives?

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