A fierce debate is going on about the UK open procurement policy and the open standards consultation that was issued by the UK government and where final submission is due by end of this month. It is the same (old) debate about open versus closed that we have seen so often before. It is discussed in almost every organisation around the globe, it seems, and culminates in a series of workshops around the topic to which the UK cabinet office has invited.
And as we have seen before, there is a good deal of confusion around and a good deal of FUD is created. There are some articles and blog posts from the workshops that give a bit of an idea of the debate. On ComputerWeekly Mark Ballard published an article where he did some research on how the first workshop went: “Open standards supporters who attended complained it was stacked with opponents who easily dominated a meeting motion against the government's open standards policy.” This was, in a way, countered or put into more balance by a statement from Andrew Hopkirk, moderator and facilitator of the round table – also published in ComputerWeekly.
In a blog post Linda Humphries, member of the UK cabinet office, asks “Are open standards a closed barrier?” And she outlines in some detail what the actual objective of the UK policy makers is:
“We think that by improving connectivity across government systems we’ll be able to share more solutions. That should help us to reduce how much we need to buy. We also want to make sure that we have flexibility and choice when we buy IT, so that we don’t get locked in with one supplier or one product. Lots of competition and diversity should give us the opportunity to swap between suppliers and to get better services at a lower cost. Additionally, let’s not forget the Government’s key commitment to levelling the playing field for open source software, making sure that there is fair access to opportunities for both proprietary and open source software providers in government IT procurement.”
So this brings us back to real facts: like a number of other governments the UK intend to mandate open standards for software interoperability standards to be used and referenced by UK public authorities. And, to avoid misunderstandings, open standard means: (i) developed in an open, transparent process; (ii) available for implementation without IPR encumbrances.
For sure such a clear open standards policy makes sense. The arguments have long been on the table – so I just repeat the most important ones:
- Open standards for software interoperability promote innovation: Looking at software interoperability, innovation takes place on the level of the implementation of standards rather than within the standard itself. Having the standards available for everybody – including the open source communities – can promote innovation. The prime example is the internet and the world wide web. New areas for innovation are just starting, e.g. around technology integration and process automation or around open government data. Open standards can be of key importance here to drive innovation. Therefore, it makes sense for governments to require open standards for software interoperability.
- Open standards provide a level playing field: Since they are available for implementation for everyone without encumbrances open standards ensure and promote fair competition. This includes both proprietary technology vendors and open source technology providers.
- Open standards prevent vendor lock-in: Open standards allow for smooth exchange of technologies with new, more innovative ones. They significantly reduce exit cost. In this way they also provide an incentive for innovation and competition since there is a fair chance for everybody to compete with their implementations of open standards. Dependency and lock-in on a single vendor are prevented.
As I had written a while ago, generally much of the way public discourse is held today shows similarities to the early 18th century with the rise of the public sphere and of (fierce) democratic debate. And I am sure the protagonists of those days, e.g. in the literary scene people – great satirists – like Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, John Arbuthnot and John Gay, would have great pleasure of how the debate on open standards and on the UK open standards policy is going.
And perhaps we can even find parallels between the current discourse and the debates of the early 18th century. Now, to enjoy this and not take it wrong you really need to understand and appreciate satire. Otherwise you will find it rogue and unpleasant. So please take this warning statement: Suitable only for people with a good sense of humour and pleasure in satire!
Now I am sure you all continue reading ;-) …. So is there a parallel between the story, the allegory of the spider and the bee and the debate about open standards? Jonathan Swift wrote this allegory which is part of his narrative The Battle of the Books in the early 18th century. The spider gets upset by a bee flying around his cobweb. But read yourselves:
[The spider said to the bee], “what art thou but a vagabond without house or home, without stock or inheritance? born to no possession of your own, but a pair of wings and a drone-pipe. Your livelihood is a universal plunder upon nature; a freebooter over fields and gardens; and, for the sake of stealing, will rob a nettle as easily as a violet. Whereas I am a domestic animal, furnished with a native stock within myself. This large castle (to show my improvements in the mathematics) is all built with my own hands, and the materials extracted altogether out of my own person.”
“I am glad,” answered the bee, “to hear you grant at least that I am come honestly by my wings and my voice; for then, it seems, I am obliged to Heaven alone for my flights and my music; and Providence would never have bestowed on me two such gifts without designing them for the noblest ends. I visit, indeed, all the flowers and blossoms of the field and garden, but whatever I collect thence enriches myself without the least injury to their beauty, their smell, or their taste. Now, for you and your skill in architecture and other mathematics, I have little to say: in that building of yours there might, for aught I know, have been labour and method enough; but, by woeful experience for us both, it is too plain the materials are naught; and I hope you will henceforth take warning, and consider duration and matter, as well as method and art. You boast, indeed, of being obliged to no other creature, but of drawing and spinning out all from yourself; that is to say, if we may judge of the liquor in the vessel by what issues out, you possess a good plentiful store of dirt and poison in your breast; and, though I would by no means lesson or disparage your genuine stock of either, yet I doubt you are somewhat obliged, for an increase of both, to a little foreign assistance. Your inherent portion of dirt does not fall of acquisitions, by sweepings exhaled from below; and one insect furnishes you with a share of poison to destroy another. So that, in short, the question comes all to this: whether is the nobler being of the two, that which, by a lazy contemplation of four inches round, by an overweening pride, feeding, and engendering on itself, turns all into excrement and venom, producing nothing at all but flybane and a cobweb; or that which, by a universal range, with long search, much study, true judgment, and distinction of things, brings home honey and wax.” [From: Jonathan Swift, The Battle of the Books, first published in 1704.]
I leave all conclusions up to your distinct judgement, gentle reader. After all, as Swift put it in the introduction to this book, “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own; which is the chief reason for that kind reception it meets with in the world”. But I hope you agree with me that we need to bring in a bit more fun into the debate. Humour often helps to create a bit of distance to the topics under discussion and to separate the real issues from those that have been made up.
Personally, I believe in collaboration rather than in battles. Open standards are a wonderful facilitator of collaboration. So here we are again, in the heart of the debate. Quod erat demonstrandum.