Thursday, 19 May 2011

The UK Open Standards Survey - moving ahead with open standards for eGovernment

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the new UK procurement policy which mandates openness and open standards for public procurement. I made very clear that the UK policy should be more clear to express that this requirement is limited to software interoperability. It is the level of formats, protocols, APIs where full openness matters. Because you wish to integrate different technologies and promote interoperability by the use of open standards which in turn provides a base for innovation. We saw this – and are still seeing this – in the internet and world wide web where open standards significantly contributed in boosting innovation.
 
As was to be expected the UK government is broadly criticised for the leadership they took on openness. Earlier this week h-online gave a nice overview of some of the criticism. For sure, standards bodies that do not have an option for Royalty-free licensing in their IPR policies are worried that the standards they produce won't meet the UK government's requirements. Well, we've heard and seen all this before in the debate about the EIF.
 
This is clearly an issue for the formal standards organisations like the European standardisation organisations (ESOs) because they do not allow a clear option for Royalty-free licensing – yet. However, the more we come into areas where a large part of innovation is in the integration of technologies it may be important to the stakeholders to have standards available as open standards under terms and conditions that allow broad and unencumbered adoption and implementation. This includes the need for implementing a standard in open source. But it is also critical for all the companies – including the many SMEs – who work on providing innovative products, solutions, services on top of the current technologies or physical layers. In other words, being able to support different IPR regimes may well be a critical element for the competitiveness of the ESOs.
 
But back to the UK procurement policy. Following the publication of this policy the UK government launched a public survey on open standards. Deadline for submissions is tomorrow, Friday, May 20. And the open standards definition is part for the survey which probably is what actually makes it spicy.
 
Now, as ever so often, I believe there is too much FUD created about it all by those who don't like to see the term open standard. My 'five cents' – or should I say pence ;-) ? – on this are:
  1. The UK government needs to be congratulated for its leadership on openness and open standards for software interoperability in the public sector.
  2. As mentioned above, the UK government should clarify that the scope of its requirement for open standards is software interoperability. This is pretty obvious from the content of the standards survey, but it might be worth saying it clearly so that confusion and irritations are being prevented.
  3. An open standards policy for software interoperability will neither prevent nor impact the use of RAND-based standards and specifications in other areas where software interoperability is not at stake.
  4. It may be worth – and helpful in the heated debate – to consider areas where open standards are not (yet) available. In this case the fall-back solution should be to use standards or specifications that are less open. This is also what the EIF proposes, by the way.
  5. And it may be worth considering that a transition period is needed in areas where no open standards or no standards at all (because proprietary technologies prevail) are used today. In this case it could be made clear that a transition phase is needed. In other words: add some element of pragmatism to the overall policy. This is probably common sense anyway, but it might help if it is written down somewhere. And no doubt, any such exceptions process needs to be very clearly and transparently documented.
And most notably, the conditions defined are not totally new, nor absurd or far off. They are met in the marketplace already today – so what's the trouble all about?
 
I expect that this debate about open standards and the definition very much overshadows the actual survey with the long list of standards and specifications. This is a pity because this is the actual purpose of the exercise. And it is very important that governments think about the standards they wish to recommend and use.
 
In this context it is also advisable that the government classifies standards differently. While it is important in some areas to mandate the use of specific standards, e.g. for achieving interoperability and ensuring a level playing field for all technology providers, in other areas it may be sufficient to recommend them. And the classification should also contain a category like “under observation”, e.g. for standards and specifications that have not yet established on the market but address a new and innovative area.
 
In general, a public survey on these standards might be too big a task. For giving good and valid recommendations about the individual standards and specifications a thorough level of understanding and detailed knowledge is important. For sure the public survey can give a first indication on the standards and specifications, their relevance and classification. But further detailed work including the key stakeholders will be needed for a clear, transparent and well documented procedure in coming up with the final list and classifications.
 
What, however, should definitely be excluded from the final standards list are proprietary technologies and formats. These are not standards and create a barrier to interoperability as well as lock-in situations.
 
It will be interesting to see how this is proceeding and what the final result will be. But anyway, again congratulations to the UK government for the leadership they are taking.

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