News that nearly passed under the radar during January was the revelation through a leak to Computer Weekly that the British government has withdrawn its already weak commitment to open standards after lobbying from Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance.
In January 2011 The Cabinet Office issued a policy that stated “When purchasing software, ICT infrastructure, ICT security and other ICT goods and services, Cabinet Office recommends that Government departments should wherever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications.”
The Cabinet Office defined open standards, accurately, as standards which “result from and are maintained through an open, independent process”, “are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost;” “have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis; and “as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms.”
The basic requirement for a standard is that it preserves the integrity and neutrality of the data. Governments and other organisations have a vested interest in the implementation of open standards because they want to ensure that the documents of today will be readable tomorrow, and that any vendor’s software can talk to any other vendor’s software. Independent vendors and developers want open standards because they allow the opportunity to develop alternative ways to edit, interpret and transmit the data.
Microsoft, and other corporate entities have lobbied the Cabinet Office to rescind their policy and replace the definition of an open standard with a definition that is termed Reasonable and Non-discriminatory (RAND). RAND allows “patent holders to claim royalties from anyone trying to implement the standard,” which would work against the participation of free and open source software, and inhibit interoperability.
Governments should be in the business of promoting a homegrown software industry, and levelling the playing field to encourage participation. Open standards allow a user to be platform, vendor and software independent. The absence of truly open standards for any segment of computing is bad for users, choice is removed, and prices escalate, and the market works in favour of the encumbent monopoly.
In some cases, the encumbent monopoly has subverted the standard to further its own interests. After all, the solution to competition from Linux and free software was stated clearly by a Microsoft engineer, Vinod Valloppillil, in a leaked Microsoft internal report as far back as 1998: “OSS [open source software] projects have been able to gain a foothold in many server applications because of the wide utility of highly commoditised, simple protocols,” he wrote. “By extending these protocols and developing new protocols, we [Microsoft] can deny OSS projects entry into the market.”
Valloppillil went on to describe areas in which Microsoft has “de-commoditised” protocols, and can do so in the future, with the objective of sabotaging interoperability, namely: “DNS integration with Directory. Leveraging the directory service to add value (sic) to DNS via dynamic updates, security, authentication,” which translates as using market dominance in one area as a means of stretching and proprietising standards in another, suffocating innovation in the process.
The promise of an open standard is that it opens the market to competition. It is future proof and offers accessability. No longer will it be necessary to have the latest version of the latest software from the biggest vendor on the latest upgraded computer to read the latest document in the latest twist to a proprietary format. The purpose of open standards is to promote interoperability between different applications on different operating systems. The effect of proprietary data formats is to encourage reliance on single vendor applications and to discourage the implementation of competitive products.
Fawning to encumbent monopolies has been the state of play with governments of all colours for the last 30 years. Procurement policy is beset by a ‘safety first’ policy of reliance on ‘trusted’ suppliers and risk aversion, even where this has resulted in massive failure. British governments have a talent for being impressed by the talk of billionaires, and a knack of stabbing themselves in the back.
Every other year there is a fresh committment that open source solutions will be preferred for government funded projects, and that open standards will be adopted ‘wherever possible’. The logic for these decisions is well understood, but is soon forgotten when the monopoly comes calling.