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UK goes royalty-free... but not for COTS

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230px-Moses041.jpgThe UK laid down the law on software standards yesterday, finally fulfilling a policy commitment that has floundered for more than than two and a half years.

The government ordered public bodies to purge their computer systems of proprietary software standards, those data formats and interfaces over which dominant software companies had made property claims established under US patent law.

It decreed that public bodies must instead implement non-proprietary, open standards; under rules it had codified so tightly that it left little room for doubt that it had at last found the courage of its convictions.

Well, almost. The policy didn't appear to apply to "commercial, off-the-shelf software", those ubiquitous, proprietary software packages against which government had formulated its open standards policy in the first place. It was written in reference only to bespoke systems. But let's not spoil the party by picking hairs, for a moment at least.

Disregarding COTS, the policy was far cry from the prevarication that has characterised UK technology policy since 2010, when the coalition was elected. The government committed its open standards pledge to paper in 2011. The proprietary software industry immediately protested at what would amount to the confiscation of its means to assert monopoly power. The protest was led by COTS suppliers Microsoft and Oracle. The government's resolve was so weak it recanted.


Now reinstated, UK policy promises to stand as a fortification against the US software patent system's seemingly irrepressible colonisation of European computing and law. (As long as you disregard COTS, of course).

If the UK had not got its mojo back and revived its policy the collapse of Europe's prohibition on software patents would have been certain. Brussels had already pawned its own open standards policy.

Yet after such a fitful beginning it must be asked whether the government had ever invested any more faith in open standards than was necessary to sell election-winning ideas to voters, and whether it has now found only enough resolve to paint a papier-mâché policy in bold colours to silence critics, while kicking the heart of the matter into the long grass.

Papier Mache Egg.pngThe heart of the matter was semantics: if you took what was by definition a proprietary standard and called it an open standard, would it dupe everyone when put at the heart of an open standards policy? This was the central question the Cabinet Office used to justify 17 months of almost perpetual public consultation and industry debate. It was so absurd that a papier-mâché resolution seemed inevitable.

Indeed the heart of the matter was well hidden when the government announced the reformation of its policy yesterday.


Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude announced the details at a private conference barred to the press. His PR department issued the usual promotional guff, neglecting to mention how it had resolved the key policy question. Its technology spokesman took a holiday. Its press department claimed ignorance and snubbed requests for information. It leaked the announcement to the press selectively.

The heart of the matter was hidden deep within in a policy document that itself been placed obscurely.

Public bodies must use open standards that comply with the government's definition, it said: see footnote.

There is a definition, said the footnote, but: see glossary.

There are many ways to define an open standard, said the glossary - for ours: see annex.

An open standard, said the annex, is one that is royalty free - one that effectively gives no credence to property claims.

This was a resounding victory for the open movement, for the government, and for common sense. But the Cabinet Office had buried the nub so deeply that you could be forgiven for thinking it had something to hide.

Perhaps it hadn't found heart enough to see the policy through. This was the question the Cabinet Office refused to answer when it first declared for open standards in 2010: what power did it have to tell government bodies what technology they should purchase? What sanction could it enforce if they refused?

Francis Maude.pngThose non-plebeians privileged with an audience with Maude yesterday morning were given the message unequivocally.


"Our Open Standards Principles... set out that Royalty Free open standards are key to levelling the playing field for open source and proprietary software in government IT," he told them.

Any residual doubt about his sincerity was eradicated by the "principles" themselves: the most authoritarian system of administrative dogma put to paper since Moses took a retirement job as food-ration monitor on a Kibbutz.

The principles contained within them 40 commandments the Cabinet Office said government bodies "must" implement as "an absolute requirement".

Each accounted for a different loophole through which a proprietary software company might inject one of its own standards into the UK's computing infrastructure.

Government bodies must write their choice of open standards into their systems specifications and procurement frameworks, it said. It would make no difference if they built their own systems or outsourced the work.

Existing systems would be marked for decommissioning if they could not be made complaint. Government accounting officers would be required to publish "legacy" exit strategies and commit to a deadline. They would have to seek approval for exemptions with detailed justifications.

Senior Responsible Owners of public IT projects would be made accountable for open standards and asked to base their decisions on a complex set of user, economic and legal criteria. All meetings and justifications would be published.


John Winthrop.jpgIt seemed almost puritanical. It envisaged a community of public bodies conjoined by open standards, their disparate computer systems acting as one body, united under the covenant handed down to them in the Open Standards Principles.

This was the problem for protesting proprietary software suppliers, whose opposition was based in the enlightenment values of the market. The UK had no right to impose its authority on their property rights. There was a threat of legal action.

It came down ultimately to a question of liberty. But the answer was not straightforward and the Cabinet Office may have fluffed it.

Those users, software programmers, open source companies, public bodies and treasury officials who laboured under the imposition of monopoly rents proprietary software producers had claimed over standards might have found their own recourse in John Locke, the father of American Liberty: that they might not "be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man"; that they might not constrained as slaves, under the dominion of will, or restraint of US [software patent] law. Technology had not turned property into an imposition in Locke's time, not directly anyway.

The Cabinet Office may not have seen this when it slipped out its statement on open standards yesterday. Proprietary software producers had stuck dogmatically to the idea that government must allow them to do as they please.

The Cabinet Office therefore presented its policy as its own right, as a customer, to determine how it spent the £16bn-a-year it did on computing. Its policy made no direct imposition on the market.


The UK Open Standards Principles nevertheless contained among their 40 commandments, by which it had so carefully covered every eventuality, no reference to commercial, off-the-shelf software.

Its "absolute" requirements - those decrees of what departments "must" do - would apply to "document formats". But no more. The policy was about IT projects. It imposed no requirements on government purchasers of COTS.

The Cabinet Office was today unable to say whether this was an oversight or an intentional omission. A spokeswoman insisted the government had committed to apply open standards to COTS in its response to the public consultation which it also published yesterday.

But it had not. 82 per cent of people who responded to the consultation said the open standards policy should treat COTS just the same as it treated bespoke software.

The government response document said merely that this point of view "would appear to be appropriate".

But this view was not appropriate enough for the government to make it an "absolute" commandment in its policy document, the UK Open Standards Principles.

If there was any doubt about this, the reader could refer to the annex, where along with the definition of open standards the Cabinet Office had set out in no uncertain terms the semantics of the very specific language it had used in its decrees.

Thumbnail image for Oracle package.jpegThere it said "must" meant "absolute requirement". There was also "should", which was not absolute: it meant "recommended", and described those instances where the Cabinet Office conceded that there might good reason why a government department could not use open standards.

It didn't even bother with "would appear to be appropriate". We all know what that means.

UK open standards and the proprietary ecosystem

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Thumbnail image for Oak Tree Ecosystem.jpgThe coalition government was elected on the promise that it would resolve the notorious problems that had turned public sector IT into a disaster story.

It expressed some firm ideas. Then it had second thoughts. Now two and a half years on, its flagship policy has stalled.

What happens next will depend on the results of a public consultation, due imminently. The government's dilemma is how to implement the policy.

The question for the consultation is what the policy really means.

Essentially a Conservative policy, it held that the IT market was stagnant: IT projects were expensive because a lack of competition had inflated prices; IT projects were disastrous because technology itself had also stagnated. Since there was no competition, there was little innovation. And since there was little innovation, there was no competition.

The government's founding coalition agreement said in 2010 it would solve both problems. It would back open source software, a disruptive technology that was cheap and innovative. And it would promote competition by breaking public IT contracts up into smaller components.


George Osborne with Liam Maxwell.pngThe man behind the reforms, deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell, insists government has made progress.

This progress was demonstrated last week, he says, when the government launched, a website. It was built using open source tools.

Maxwell reckons the government has also cut £400m off its ICT bill of around £16bn by breaking some of its larger contracts up.

Yet the keystone of both these policies has still to be put in place. That is a third policy - its policy on open standards. Without it, the government IT strategy is a dead duck. It could neither remove the market barriers to open source software nor break its IT systems up in the way it wants if it didn't have open standards.

The problem was described recently by your correspondent in another place, thus:

"The market problem had been derived in the first place from technology's inherent need to work together, as a coherent system. The way it did that was using standards of communication, so one part of the system could co-operate with another, sharing applications, functions and data.

"The problem was that technology markets had coagulated into competing ecosystems based on their own proprietary standards. Dominant ecosystems used their standards to lock competitors out, stagnating the market.

"The coalition proposed that it would place government functions and data in the broadest possible ecosystem to ensure no single supplier or technology was so powerful that it couldn't be swapped with any other.

Thus contracts could be disaggregated and dominant suppliers replaced without causing problems for existing systems, while open source software could be deployed because it wouldn't be locked out by a proprietary ecosystem's standards.

"The government would do this by employing open standards - standards that can be used by any market participant and implemented in any technology without restraint."

But the three leading vendors of proprietary ecosystems - Apple, Microsoft and Oracle - opposed the policy.

They protested. They wanted the right to make proprietary claims on open standards, by claiming royalty payments. The government had said the thing that distinguished an open standard was that it did not countenance proprietary claims. The matter will be settled when the government publishes the results of its consultation.

Proprietary ecosystems

Microsoft has meanwhile sought to explain its opposition to UK policy by claiming its dominant proprietary ecosystem benefits the economy.

Asked to explain its position, it pointed to a 2009 study by IDC that said its Windows ecosystem would generate £18bn of revenues for UK companies that year.

For every £1 of revenue Microsoft generated in the UK, its supply chain partners would do £8.84 of business. Across Europe, companies in Microsoft's ecosystem would generate €110bn revenues.

Thumbnail image for For every $ spent by Microsoft in Europe.pngBut a study published by the United Nations University Institute for Advanced Studies found that for every €1 spent on proprietary software - in an ecosystem defined by proprietary standards - €0.86 went back up the supply chain to a company outside Europe.

In contrast, said the UN study, spending on open source software - operating necessarily in an ecosystem delimited by open standards - resulted in about three times the amount of money staying in the region where it was invested.

Its numbers had apparently proven the point that always seemed obviously so: the owner of a proprietary ecosystem would enjoy the spoils, though his cronies might get rich too. He wouldn't get nearly as rich if he joined the open standards ecosystem, but a lot more people would get a share of the spoils.

Carlo Daffara -£80bn

Carlo Daffara, the study's author, says his further calculations show that the UK saves about £80bn-a-year by using open source software. This figure is unpublished. You read it here first.

The saving comes, he says, from the way in which open source software is developed: collaboratively, with applications and functional components being shared freely, so anyone can adapt them or deploy them in their own systems.

It's the re-use that saves money, as Maxwell had been saying when pushing these ideas in Conservative technology policy papers. It also makes software less prone to error. Both advantages rely on open standards.

This was the basis of UK policy. But the government has been hiding in a bunker since the conflict between proprietary technology companies and their open source competitors became a battle of global proportions.

This conflict has made the UK look like an island, and the government seem ready to become a cowardly appeaser. It made a bold stand. But there is a strong likelihood that the Cabinet Office will abandon its open standards policy or fudge it in a way that makes it look one way and act another.

But the Cabinet Office should take heart after the humble appearance of Sir Tim Berners-Lee at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.

Sir Tim had of course created the greatest of all the world's technology ecosystems, the World Wide Web. He has written that the Web's inestimable commercial and cultural benefits were possible only because it was built using open standards. He appeared at the Olympics like a benign master of ceremonies, gently waving from the centre of a whirlwind of steroids and trumpery, like the personal embodiment of open standards: miraculous and fragile, yet when defended resolutely, triumphant.

How Europe did 20 years of backroom deals with Microsoft
1993: EC rubber-stamps Microsoft monopoly

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Microsoft Office 1992.pngEurope's ill-fated 1993 migration to Microsoft Office was rubber-stamped by a committee that failed to see how it would get locked into buying Microsoft without a competition for the next 20 years, show documents released to Computer Weekly.

The European Commission used dubious reasoning to justify its decision in 1992 to do a backroom deal with Microsoft. Officials at the time said it was based on a survey of the wordprocessing market. But they took that as justification for buying Microsoft's entire Office suite - with spreadsheet, presentation, email and database software - without opening the business up to any other competitor. And it threw the desktop operating systems DOS and Windows in as well.

"Under the provisions of Article 58 of the Financial Regulation, [the selection procedure] was carried by direct negotiation with the company Microsoft Corporation, owner of the goods concerned (MS-WORD FOR WINDOWS, EXCEL, and operating systems DOS and Windows)," said the EC Information Directorate at the time.

"The proposed contract with the company MICROSOFT will also extend to other office products offered by the company and are regularly requested from the Commission."

The EC was effectively giving Microsoft its desktop monopoly on a plate.

Article 58 of the European Financial Regulations ultimately rested on a the rule that: "Contracts may be made by private treaty...where for technical, practical or legal reasons the supply of goods or services can only be carried out by a particular contractor or supplier."

It meant the EC could do a private deal with Microsoft without opening it up to competitors.

But it had only considered the impact of its decision on the market for WordProcessers. Microsoft was even then already in hot water over its attempts to abuse its dominant market position in desktop operating systems to pin down the entire PC computing environment.

The 1993 procurement was mitigated by an EC decision to standardise its desktops on both Microsoft and WordPerfect Office. The EC chose WordPerfect as the standard format in the absence of an industry, or open standard. The rollout was expected to take three years. By the end of that term, the EC dropped WordPerfect and handed all its business to Microsoft - again without a competition.

The EC said its backroom Microsoft deal was justified in an earlier report that justified buying WordPerfect software on the same terms, again by the Informatics Directorate - now DIGIT: the Directorate-General for Informatics that is still handing the business for the entire European administration's desktops to Microsoft without a competition.

But DIGIT's WordPerfect report said nothing to justify a private arrangement under Article 58.

Anyway, it said, it wasn't justifying any decision to buy Microsoft just yet - that would be done in the later Microsoft report.

The only justifications DIGIT gave for buying WordPerfect were discounts and the empty licensing sweeteners that have become common reasons for approving packaged software procurements.

DIGIT said the WordPerfect purchase was justified by volume price reductions, and reductions for throwing out a competing product (the old market-leading Unix suite by Quadraton), and the promise of cheap rates for updates.

There was nothing to indicate a backroom deal could be justified under Article 58 of the European Financial Regulations - but it did it anyway.


Documents obtained under European Commission Freedom of Information rules. Painstakingly transcribed in original French and processed in Google Translate.

16 APR 1993    EC justifies first bulk purchase of Microsoft desktop software

EC Justification of first Microsoft deal - 16 APR 1993 - Splash.pngProcurement file

Bruxelles 16/04/1993
DI-SLF/B (93) GG/rd 135


Logistical support and training




The IT Department has submitted for the meeting of the CCAM 25/03/1993, a report on the conclusion of a contract with WORDPERFECT company, for the acquisition of software word processing. The report, which has obtained a favorable n...105/93 of CCAМ (see Annex I), explained the decision of the Commission to replace the current word processor, the Q-ONE QUADRATON company, for MS Word for Windows, the company MICROSOFT, and WordPerfect for Windows, the Company WORDPERFECT.

Negotiations with the firm MICROSOFT have meanwhile continued and a draft contract has been established (see Annex II). As in the case of WordPerfect, the proposed contract with the company MICROSOFT will also extend to other office products offered by the company and are regularly requested from the Commission.

The signing of such agreement the Commission will provide many benefits, the same as those mentioned in point III of the report for ACPC WORDPERFECT.

Negotiations with MICROSOFT CORPORATION also covered the strategic direction of the company based on the current and future architecture of the Comission.


The process leading to the selection of word processors MS-Word for Windows and WordPerfect for Windows has been described in detail in the report relating to the contract WORDPERFECT CCAM.


Under the provisions of Article 58 of the Financial Regulation, [the selection procedure] was carried by direct negotiation with the company Microsoft Corporation, owner of the goods concerned (MS-WORD FOR WINDOWS, EXCEL, and operating systems DOS and Windows).

The contract that the Commission has negotiated with the firm MICROSOFT CORPORATION provides that licenses are purchased primarily from authorised retailers and occasionally from MICROSOFT CORPORATION.


5 MAR 1993    EC justifies decision to buy WordPerfect

EC Report justifying Office software purchase - 5 MAR 1993 - Splash.pngBruxelles, le 05/03/1993
DI-SLF/B (93) GG/rd 087

Logistical support and training



The IRMB (Information Resources Management Board), in session from 16 July 1992, decided that the word processor now used by the Commission (Q-ONE QUADRATON) became obsolete, and would be replaced by word processors MS Word for Windows, of Microsoft, and WordPerfect for Windows, by WORDPERFECT. The decision was prepared by a thorough analysis of the market (see Chapter IV).

The migration is planned over three years. We must proceed with acquisitions of products concerned to benefit from the services and benefits involved. The market volume is estimated as financially and technically advantageous for the Commission to benefit from cost reductions granted by the signing of a contract with both companies.

Although negotiations were conducted in parallel with both Microsoft and WordPerfect, the report presented only for signing the contract with the firm WORDPERFECT. A further report be presented to the ССАМ as soon as the draft contract is finalised with Microsoft.

The coverage of the contract attached as we are planning to sign with the company WORDPERFECT (see Annex III) extends to other office products offered by the company that are regularly requested from the Commission, which increases the importance of the reductions granted.

The benefits of the contract include:

- Price reductions secured by the volume of purchases, taking into account the purchases made by other institutions,

- Granting a reduced rate if replacing a competing product (including Q-ONE) licensed WORDPERFECT ("competitive upgrade")

- Possibility of using a single license for training room

- Discounts on the costs of updating automatically received (with maintenance),

- Permission to install software on all workstations from originals or electronic copy, with quarterly reporting,

- Updates easier by removing the obligation to return the disks originate from the supplier,

- Authorisation for staff to use the same license at the office and at home for much of the application software, or on the desktop and the laptop,

- Access to support in a range of services and
inside information (on-line support, test versions, documentation ...).

In addition, contract negotiations have also covered the strategic direction of company WORDPERFECT according current and future architecture of the Commission (cf. Annex IV - Statement of Direction).


The "Committee for Users of Word Processing and Electronic Mail", which is chaired by Secretary-General of the Commission and comprising substantially all of the Commission appointed a Technical Group to study the market "word processing" and provide a report. The findings of this report a summary of which is appended it led to the recommendation of the products of word processors MS Word for Windows and WordPerfect firm MICROSOFT WINDOWS for the firm WORDPERFECT.

After a consultation conducted by the Secretary General of the Commission with officials from other agencies, IRMB endorsed the recommendation of the Technical Gгоuре by its decision of 07.16.92 (Annex I),


Under the provisions of ..Article 58 of the Financial Regulation, was carried by direct negotiation with the firm WORDPERFECT CORPORATION, owner of the product WORDPERFECT,


16 JUL 1992    EC Information Resources Management Board WordProcessing Strategy

EC Information Resources Board recommends WP standard till better option - 16 JUL 1992 - Splash.pngLuxembourg, July 23, 1992
DI - (92) 5257 MOL / пс




July 16, 1992

Summary of Findings

Both products Word and WordPerfect for Windows (multi-size 5.1) are allowed to coexist and Commission. The official exchange format by default between the two systems will be WordPerfect format pending the availability of standardised solutions.

As for the fixtures of migration: the IRMB notes the importance of migration Translation Service and its implications for all services. This migration is scheduled over a period of 3 years until 31/12/1995.

In order to have a global and concerted evolution in the DG, they are encouraged to prepare for the end of the year, migration plans. The IT department is at their disposal if they wish, to help make these plans

The technical topics include:

- Improvement of converters,

- Integration with e-mail service,

will be handled by the IT department is asked to allocate the resources.

In the field of e-mail, IRMB stresses the importance of the timing of the development of products used, both within the Commission and with other institutions,

The IRMB notes the need for concerted action, consistent and transparent within the Commission on the next generation of e-mail.

1. List of Participants
2. Letters of Secretaries General of other institutions


6 JUL 1992    EC Secretary General recommends Microsoft Office procurement

How Europe did 20 years of backroom deals with Microsoft
1992: Open standards doomed from outset

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EC Sec Gen Committee Recommends Microsoft and WordPerfect desktops - 6 JUL 1992 - Splash.png
The European Commission has been trying - and failing - to avoid being locked into proprietary Microsoft technical standards since 1992, it has been revealed in official documents released to Computer Weekly.

Its failure then led directly to the decision last year that ensured the EC will in 2013 have been buying Microsoft software for 20 years without a competition. In fact it was 20 years ago this month that EC officials made the original decision.

The Commission's Committee for Word Processing and E-Mail made the historic decision to use Microsoft desktop software on On 6 July 1992. It was backed up over the following month by various official bodies.

Under the chairmanship of  David Williamson, then EC Secretary General, now Baron Williamson of Horton, life peer in the UK House of Lords, the committee seemed determined to avoid being locked into Microsoft.

It already had some idea how its decision could have serious consequences for software competition. The US Federal Trade Commission was already investigating Microsoft for abusing its market power. In a case that was taken up just a year later by the US Department of Justice and the EC itself, the FTC had accused Microsoft both of giving its desktop Office software advantageous access to the proprietary hooks in its Windows and DOS operating systems, and of tying its operating system customers into commercial arrangements that included its Office software as well.

The EC committee wanted to avoid getting locked into Microsoft. But there was no international standard to govern the exchange of information between users of its computer systems - and between its officials and the outside world. It had no choice but to use proprietary standards.

Despite its best intentions, the EC ended up rolling desktop PCs with Microsoft operating systems across the European administration and its sister institutions between 1993 and 1996 - and signing a deal that tied Microsoft Office in as well.

The European Commission thought it had a way to keep Microsoft in its place. It balanced the Microsoft deal by signing a deal with WordPerfect as well. So in 1993 EC budget holders could buy Microsoft Office or WordPerfect Office.

But that was not all.

"The official exchange format by default between the two systems will be WordPerfect format pending the availability of standardised solutions," said the report of Lord Williamson's Committee on 6 July 1992.

This was backed up on 23 July 1992 - 20 years ago this Monday - by a communication of the EC's then IT department, the Information Resources Management Board (IRMB).

There might not have been any open standards - and that might well have played right into Microsoft's proprietary interests. But the EC wasn't going to allow it.

All these good intentions came to nothing however, when three years later the EC turned its entire desktop ecosystem over to Microsoft. It was by then pursuing the software giant on an anti-competition rap itself. But it gave Microsoft a deal to supply everything - from its operating system through to word processors, spreadsheets, databases and presentation software across the entire EC.

The EC had within just three years become so irrevocably tied in to buying Microsoft that the software giant would dominate its desktop environment for the next 20 years. Last year it signed a deal to implement Microsoft operating system and application software across more than 36,000 desktops across the Commission and other EU institutions.

It is still fighting for open standards that will stop it being locked in to Microsoft and other proprietary software vendors, still fighting Microsoft in court over monopoly fines it later imposed for abusing its market power with proprietary standards, and - as of last week - still bringing new competition cases against the software giant for tying people into its proprietary systems.

So what went wrong?

Some answers will appear on these pages in coming days.


The European Commission, in answer to a document request, sent Computer Weekly a copy of the original committee decision by which it first decided to adopt Microsoft desktop software in 1992.

The original was obscured during a scanning process at the EC after it was faxed, and supplied only in excerpt. The document is currently unavailable in its entirety. The original document can be accessed by clicking the image above. The translation is available below.

That document was painstakingly transposed in the original French, then translated using Google Translate.

07/13/92 12:07 FAX
July 6

Word Processing and Electronic Mail Users Group


Aware of the difficulties that arise when choosing a single [product], the group notes that the selection of the products [WORD for] Windows and WordPerfect 5.1 meets preoccupations of [all] DG's who wish to leave Q-Office. He [recommend] Therefore to retain these two products for the [platform] DOS / WINDOWS.

For UNIX platforms, X, MOTIF ... group RECOMMENDED WORD ...
when the services concerned wishes to leave the fam ...Q-office products.

Given the inter-institutional constraints, and [need to] maintain good efficiency of the operation of [the institutes] group recommends that the official format for exchange by default, sender and recipient do not have the same product, size WORDPERFECT 5.1. the choice of exchange format is trans ... pending the availability of meeting the basic standards means that the responsibility and guarantee [End ...] dependent default conversion service that does not use the WORDPERFECT, that the service be a transmitter or receiver electronic courier .

Exchange format adopted assumes that institutions do not change, the short and medium terms, their ... current. The Group therefore considers that the Commission indispensable assurances in that direction before making a decision.

The long term will be some [specific] advance between the institutions, to meet to exchange, based on international standards, between the [service] the Commission, other institutions, and outside world.

The group recommends that the conventions of use, including manual typing, are stable under the coordination and general secretariat in collaboration with others concerned, such agreements must have a value binding facilitate electronic transactions, including conversions.

The group attracts the attention of the IRMB the need to access very carefully migration to new systems the importance of providing the necessary budgetary resources.

The group intends to report to IRMB 12 months in light of experience.

Open standards? You'll know one when you see one, says Microsoft

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voodoo_doll.jpgYou can't define an open standard, said Microsoft's policy director in an interview with Computer Weekly. But you know one when you see one.

That has become the essence of Microsoft's opposition to the UK government's open standards policy, according to Steve Mutkoski, worldwide policy director of international government affairs at Microsoft. You can't put your finger on it. And what'n'ever it is, it ain't what the open standards movement says it is.

It wasn't always so. How we got talking about this, in the atrium of Microsoft's swish London headquarters, was that the software giant had used a curious tactic to defeat UK open standards policy. Computer Weekly was trying to shed some light on it.

When Microsoft, the open movement's most powerful enemy, saw the UK hoist the open standards banner it did not try to have it pulled down. It tried to have the colours changed.

This is what the public consultation that closes Monday is all about. Microsoft and its cohorts in the proprietary software business tried to persuade the UK to their wording when it codifies open standards in official policy. The government asked for public support: is an open standard what we say it is or what Microsoft says it is?

Microsoft had used a dastardly ingenious tactic: steal your enemy's language of identity and you render him powerless. The open movement had evolved its own meanings for the words it used to define itself. 'Open standard' was the most important and most powerful, particularly since governments had started trying to put it on official headed paper. Its meaning had been forged in opposition to the proprietary software model. It and UK policy had been defined in explicit opposition to Microsoft's business practices. The movement had defined its own terms. Now Microsoft and its cohorts in the International Standards Organisation and Business Software Alliance wanted them rewritten on their own terms. They sought to impose their own meanings on their enemies' language, and when it was written on official paper their enemies would be metamorphosed into their own likeness. It was voodoo magic.

Microsoft Cardinal Place London.jpgBack in London

That was however no reason to dismiss the proprietary lobby outright. It had been so persuasive in private meetings and letters that the government pulled its first official definition of an open standard. If Microsoft had given a good reason it deserved to be exposed to the light of day.

So far we only had the what, not the why. Leaked correspondence revealed Microsoft and its partners had insisted patent holders should be permitted to stake royalty claims over open standards just as they did over every other sort of standard. They claimed the right to label proprietary, patented standards as open standards. It seemed nonsensical. There had to be a reason why.

Computer Weekly got its chance to find out when Microsoft's director of policy flew in from Seattle on one of those unusually sunny mornings in March. Mutkoski had come to personally lead the lobbying. Neither of us knew then how the lobbying was to backfire. But the important questions would still need answering.

So I asked the most pertinent of them. How could it be justified for a patent holder to stake a claim over a standard of software interoperability?

"I can explain that you," said Mutkoski. "But I will also start out with a proposition. Why should it not be the case?"

It was perhaps too much to expect a straightforward answer. This was what in debating circles was known as shifting the burden of proof. The whole point of the interview was to question Microsoft's assertions about open standards. Mutkoski was trying to shift the burden on me to prove the opposite of his case. That wasn't my job, or my cause.

The opposite case, for open standards, had already been made by the coalition government, and other governments before it. They made it openly. It seemed valid. They promised liberation in a world where public computer systems were hog-tied by Microsoft's desktop software monopoly and squished under the weight of Oracle's market power. Microsoft might be the only official monopolist in the room. But 70 per cent of all software bought by government was Oracle. This much was fact.

Steve Stephen Mutkoski - Microsoft.jpgGOTO 10

I put the question again. How did Microsoft justify its attempt to impose royalty claims on open standards?

The answer, said Mutkoski, was that the software industry supported a variety of business models. One of those business models involved people selling proprietary software licences. Those people should be included in the open standards definition.

This was still no reason why. And it was again nonsensical. The point of classifying something is to distinguish it. Create a subset of standards called open standards. Allow all varieties of software standard to be thrown into it and you no longer have a distinct subset. You have a hotch-potch.

But Microsoft might have a valid case waiting to be put cogently. Could he give an example that demonstrated why such royalty claims should be permissible?

"Here's why," said Mutkoski. "You are a products company. You are looking to create great, innovative products that sell. You can either do the R&D yourself, which is going to cost money, or you could license the technology I contribute. I need to get a return on my R&D. I think that's the paradigmatic why."

And it was a why. But it was the why of the proprietary software licensing model. There was still no sensible reason why this model should be imposed on the open movement.

I put it to Mutkoski again. For what reason should anyone be permitted to claim royalties over a standard of software interoperability?

He summoned for his answer the example of those telecoms and electronics-derived media standards that were later to be barred from the UK consultation: mp3, H.264, GSM and 3G. His case was that these standards had been successful despite being bound in hardware-derived patents. He denied there was any reason to distinguishing between hardware and software. His said that in both cases it was simply valid for someone to claim royalties over a standard.

Infinite loop

Yes, but why? What, say, are the H.264 royalty claims for? If we knew that then perhaps we could at least get the heft of a justification, if not the sense.

"I'd have to look there. There's no way I can answer that even in an hour. These are areas that are so complex."

"Do you know what the patent claims are for in H.264?"

"I know what some of them are".

"Can you give me an example?"

"Not off the top of my head".

"This is crucial. This is what I want to understand."

"Maybe you need to talk to a patent lawyer. I'm not involved in any of the organisations well enough to answer the kinds of questions you have about specific patents."

"Well then how can you say for sure that it's desirable to allow royalty claims over standards if you don't know what the basis of your argument is?"

"I think you are asking me to prove a negative. I would flip the question round and say to people who don't want to recognise royalties why they think it's desirable to not have royalties."

He was trying to shift the burden again. And anyway, Mutkoski was a lawyer. He'd been a software licensing counsel and attorney at Microsoft for years. I wasn't asking you to prove a negative, I said. I was asking you to prove your assertion. You are asking me to a negative, I said.

We had reached a dead-end in Microsoft's argument: the proprietary model should be imposed on the open model because the proprietary model. It was argumentum ad morantium. The Cabinet Office had fallen for this.

Mutkoski denied it was so. Innovators must simply be permitted to claim rewards for their efforts, he said. That meant claiming royalties over standards as well as the software implementations that used them. Convince me, I said. You convince me, he said. You can't prove your case, I said. You're tying to shift the burden he said. We were going round in circles, flirting around the software patent debate. That is what it was about for Mutkoski - the legitimacy of software patents.

Microsoft-proposed Cabinet Office open standards PPN.pngBut it wasn't. It was about open standards.


We were having this silly Dervish debate because Microsoft and its cohorts had protested over the UK's attempt to define an open standard as something distinct from proprietary standards. This opposition seemed fatuous as well. If an open standard was distinguished by its not being proprietary then it would by definition not entertain proprietary claims. If its distinction was not that it was not proprietary then it was pointless distinguishing it all: just call it a standard and stop wasting our time.

Yet Microsoft, Oracle, the Business Software Alliance, the International Standards Organisation and the British Standards Institution all told the UK that proprietary standards ought to be included amongst those it called open. There was by their reckoning nothing to distinguish proprietary and open. Microsoft had even mocked up a Cabinet Office Procurement Policy Note, in official wording, that included an open standards definition with a proprietary clause stuffed in it. Standards constituted of proprietary licence terms known as FRAND were, it insisted, open.

When Computer Weekly asked these organisations to release the open standards definitions they had been pushing on the UK, they all refused. They weren't all that open themselves. The information got out anyway in a leak and a Freedom of Information request. When CW pushed them to justify their position, they either withdrew it or, as did Oracle, refused to speak. As has already been written, ISO said it did not even know what an open standard was, though it had been telling government how it should write its definition.

What has not been revealed before now is that BSI went further in distancing itself from the whole affair.

David Bell, BSI head of policy, told Computer Weekly: "We don't talk about open standards because it's not a concept that we - it's not part of our terminology. 'Open standards' is just not part of the vocabulary we use."

Bell's was the only sensible contribution the proprietary camp had made to the whole debate. Perhaps Mutkoski would make a similar climbdown when asked to clarify Microsoft's definition of an open standard.

He didn't quite climb down. He transmogrified. There was now no way to define an open standard for certain. It meant different things to different people. "From my experience," said Mutkoski, "its a spectrum".

Spectrums are what psychologists use to identify ambiguous mental conditions like autism. The human mind is so complex it can be hard to determine whether someone conforms to something so simplistic as a label. So psychologists determine how someone's behaviour maps to a spectrum of autistic traits. This is how Mutkoski wanted the UK to classify open standards. He reckoned they had five traits. Four of them concerned the way an issuing standards body dealt with them: how overhead costs where covered, that sort of thing. One concerned the actual substance of the standard: and only then to specify that it could be proprietary.

Market failure

Mutkoski's point was you couldn't put your finger on it. Even if Microsoft itself had a proprietary claim over an open standard, it might still be deemed open on the strength of its being formed in an open forum where the voting was arranged equitably and there was a liberal supply of cheese biscuits.

But who in this ambiguous world would determine which standards should be classified open and which proprietary, I asked. If every standard should be treated as an individual case, this spectrum approach implied an unreliable procession of professional assessments, tests and second opinions that might produce unsatisfactory diagnoses.

Let the market decide, said Mutkoski. And when the market failed? The market would correct itself. The standards ecosystem was sophisticated. It was self-correcting.

What went unspoken between us was the unsavoury example of the market failure exemplified in Microsoft's own .doc format, or Oracle's idiosyncratic implementation of Standard SQL. Those market failures could only be seen at a greater perspective than that conceivable by the standards ecosystem itself. The market failures had not corrected themselves. Government had decided to intervene. And even then only to spend its own money more wisely.

The spectrum seemed just another dastardly way to pull the rug out from the open standards movement anyway. A software standard is not a complex system like the human brain. It's not hard to put your finger on it. If you decide that an open standard is an amorphous concept and let anyone define it how they want, you make it impossible to say what it is for sure. It's then whatever you want it to be. Policy formed in this way would have the structural integrity of a freshly laid cow pat, or the semantic certainty of gobbledygook - at least for as long as it took the proprietary camp to have established in practice that all open standards were now proprietary.
Barbie Campaign.jpg
Fairly reasonable

To be fair to Mutkoski, there might still have been something he was failing to get across. He was better at expressing his ideas on paper, he said. He gave me a copy of a paper he had written about open standards: 'Defining Open Standards: A Comparison of Policy and Practice'.

The paper starts out by misrepresenting a famous paper by a Yale law professor on the "I know it when I see it" hardcore pornography ruling of the US Supreme Court, as though to give his case against open standards the appearance of authority.

Nevertheless, Mutkoski's proposition is that open standards have a fundamental problem: they rely for evidence of their own integrity on nothing but self-referential confidence. The problem with his critique is that it denies the open movement the right to self-determination. (Also ironically for a software patent expert, the paper he misrepresented is about freedom of speech). His analysis reduces the open standards policy efforts of the UK, Europe and India into a dissembling knot of gripes and picked hairs.

It's hard to put your finger on what an open standard is because different organisations have defined it in different ways, the paper says. What it does not say is this is most true of those who drafted open standards definitions after capitulating to the proprietary lobby. It's like saying laws against embezzlement are unworkable because some countries have loopholes in which gangsters operate freely. Just ask any gangster, he'll tell you its unworkable.

This left just one question for the proprietary camp. If an open standard was one that included proprietary licence terms, what was a non-open standard? Surely there would be nothing to distinguish them?

"I think that most people would probably agree that a non-open standard is a specification created by a single company, held within the company and not shared with anyone else, not available for licensing, not available for implementation," said Mutkoski.

But that wouldn't be a standard at all, I said. "It could be though," said Mutkoski. Ah so its whatever you say it is. I know it when I smell it.

Software industry reclaims open standards debate

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Software heavyweights filled the first meeting of the UK's extended public consultation on open standards last Friday, closing down telecoms patent advocates whose arguments had threatened to derail government policy.

Deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell had the night before extended the consultation for a month after discovering Microsoft, lead opponent of the UK's open standards policy, had been paying an independent Cabinet Office facilitator to help formulate its case. Government supporters had till then shown a lacklustre response to the consultation, while the policy, and open standards, had looked lost for the UK.

By Friday lunchtime the tables had turned.

Linda Humphries, Cabinet Office official, told a meeting of around 30 mostly software experts that the fields from which the government's opponents had been drawing their evidence was out of bounds for the consultation.

"The consultation is focusing on open standards in specifications for software interoperability, data and document formats," she said, with Maxwell looking on.

"It doesn't go into hardware, telecoms or software IP. There are some people concerned we are trying to run away with [their] IP. That's not the point at all. What we are talking about is standards," she said.

The meeting nevertheless dwelt for a significant time on just those things as the software industry staked its territory in what seemed like a pivotal moment for both it and the coalition government's ICT strategy.

Empty lobby

Microsoft's opposition to UK policy had been predicated on standards derived from hardware and telecoms. Representatives of those industries had dominated the last and now discredited consultation meeting. On Friday they were vastly outnumbered.

Steve Mustkoski, the Microsoft worldwide policy director who had led the vendor's lobbying effort in London, was registered but did not appear. Likewise his colleague, OASIS director Peter Brown. Andrew Hopkirk, the Microsoft consultant whose conflict of interest had been the cause of this sudden change in fortunes, did take his place at the table, even as stories about him broke in the trade press. He introduced himself as an independent advising Microsoft on the consultation and otherwise remained silent.

The meeting heard instead, for two hours, a relentless case for open standards. A handful of telecoms experts tried to sustain their industry's case for patents in software standards. But their arguments did not stand to scrutiny nor the onslaught of statements made by software heavyweights mustered by the open source software industry, who included a Queen's Counsel and a former counsel for the US government.

Iain Mitchell QC, representing Open Forum Europe, an open source campaign group collaborating with government, gave two examples of situations the government's open standards policy sought to debar: democratic lock-out and commercial lock-in, created in both cases by proprietary software.
Iain Mitchell QC.png
Slovakian tax payers had been ordered to file their returns online using a system that would only work for people who used Microsoft software, said Mitchell. While an unnamed public authority in Scotland might become a test case for European law over its inability to choose any system for a £25m procurement but the one designed by a prior software supplier.

Open lobby

There was no debate on these points, though Humphries had said they were what the government's policy was all about - that and creating a level playing field for open source software, an election commitment to which the government intended to stick.

John Newton, chairman and chief technology officer of Alfresco Software, one of the larger open source suppliers, illustrated the Cabinet Office case for a level playing field.

Alfresco had sought to make its content management system interoperate with Microsoft's "monopoly" Office software but was scared off by it's patent-encumbered FRAND licence terms. Their assurances were both too complex and too vague to give an open source supplier enough legal certainty to take them up.

It would "completely screw up" Alfresco's open source business model, he said.

FRAND - the patent-bearing, 'fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory' licence terms at the heart of Microsoft's case against UK policy - was about the only matter over which the room heard any disagreement.

Keith Mallinson, a telecoms consultant, said the majority of the world's standards exacted royalty payments under FRAND terms. Mallinson believed UK policy excluded FRAND. It was therefore to be assumed it would exclude just about any standard you cared to mention, and to be deduced that it was hair-brained.

Keith Mallinson - WiseHarbor.jpgExcept that the British Standards Organisation had told Computer Weekly the vast majority of standards it and the International Standards Organisation authorised did not exact royalties at all.


Andrew Watson, technology director of the Object Management Group, a software engineering standards body, had attended the meeting to make exactly that point.

"We have a policy that in theory allows either free licences or reasonable and non-discriminatory licences," he said.

"In practice, in almost 20 years we have almost never published a specification that requires any money to be paid for a licence.

"We maintain about 177 specifications. One of them is encumbered by two patents. The holders agreed to licence them royalty free," he added.

Mark Bohannon - Red Hat.jpgMark Bohannon, vice president of public policy at Red Hat, said he had the same experience when previously he was chief technology counsel for the US government's National Institute for Standards and Technology.

"We were involved in everything from toilet seats to encryption," he said. "On the whole, most standards do not have encumbrances that are relevant to this discussion. In our experience in software, most standards are not encumbered."

The telecoms experts, however, would not heed Humphries' request that patents were out of bounds. This was because Exhibit A for the patent lobby's case against open standards has been the patent-encumbered Mpeg audio and video compression formats.

Paul Jenkins, head of Strategic Programmes at BT, who professed a background in telecoms hardware, brought the topic up. It had been centre-piece in Microsoft's backroom lobbying of the Cabinet Office last year. The story goes that Mpeg is an example of how well a patent-encumbered standard can support a thriving market.

Paul Jenkins - BT.jpgYet the reason the patent lobby thinks government should embrace Mpeg is the same one for which the open software movement condemns it. Mpeg had originally been specified with hardware patents. When its compression algorithms were later implemented in software the patents stuck.

Hardware patents

Hence, said Mallinson, if UK government used open standards it would discriminate against hardware patent holders who happened to have gained a beachhead in software. This was particularly true of Mpeg, he said, in which the patented algorithms were inseparable from the standard.

The meeting was being drawn into a debate about software patents, another can of worms entirely. Move on to the next paragraph, quickly. Or otherwise, for a slithering taster, consider creating an open standard to govern the interoperation of software implementations using fundamental algorithms that are not only inseparable from their envelope, and which are not only patented under a US regime that permits mathematical formulas to be treated as property, but are also sanctioned in Europe (where patents are permissible only in software that is inseparable from specific underlying hardware) by virtue of their hardware heritage, even though they are now imposed on software running on general hardware over which patents would not normally be permitted at all. It's not possible, not an open standard.

Just as well the consultation was not about patents. It was, as IBM technical policy lead Chris Francis and others noted repeatedly, about how government could best exercise its prerogative as a customer buying software.

That was not however simply a matter of buying systems that employed open standards. As Open Source Consortium chairman Gerry Gavigan alluded, the government is a very large customer that can't adjust its seat without creating a gust with enough power to move markets. Hence government's concern for level playing fields and Slovakian democratic participation, as well as Scottish tax payers.

Hence also the patent lobby's complaints that an open standards policy would exclude them. UK policy wouldn't actually exclude them. But ignoring that fact, as the patent lobby did, the central question for the consultation meeting was therefore, what is a level playing field. That is, what is a free market for software, as opposed to a market for free software. Was it one sculpted by open standards or patented standards?

Kevin Marks - Salesforce dot com.jpg
Fortunately for UK government, software experts with first-hand experience of Mpeg and telecoms patents had come from as far afield as Silicon Valley to state their case.

"The patent thicket around video has prevented progress in that for at least 20 years," said Kevin Marks, vice president of open cloud standards at, who had implemented Mpeg4 in Apple's QuickTime player while working there at the turn of the millennium.

Marks said he had wanted to endow Apple's software with the means to handle open source alternatives to Mpeg. Mpeg's FRAND patent policy had prevented him.

"I was told by the VP at Apple, 'No we cannot do that because we've already taken licences to these other patents - they will withdraw that from us if we try and do that'," he said.

It was to be taken as an example of how patents could erect unhealthy barriers in a free market. Apple had continued having the same problem, said Marks.

"If you read the discussions about video codecs for HTML5, this is pretty much Apple's position. Apple said we cannot ship these codecs because we may get our licences to Mpeg withdrawn and that will effect our ability to sell iPods that play video," he said.

Notwithstanding that Apple had also been lobbying against the UK government's open standards policy, Phil Archer, eGovernment consultant for the World Wide Web Consortium, told the meeting confirmed its HTML5 standard had that problem.

"HTML5 has a video tag in it. And there have been arguments back and forward about which standard we should choose. We ended up deciding to choose none of them. Because we can't," he said.


Their point was that patents had hamstrung even the most successful of open standards bodies. The hamstrings would tighten round the UK too if government wasn't resolute about open standards.

The problem was that standards defined in FRAND terms allowed patent holders to claim royalties on anyone who wanted to play. It is the equivalent in software of Aston Martin being permitted to sell its sports cars in the European single market only through Renault dealerships, and for a fee.

Playing fields like the W3C's World Wide Web and the Object Management Group's Unified Modelling Language had thrived because they were defined using open standards that ensured everyone competed on the same terms.

Archer said companies contributed to the Web standards process without expecting to charge an internet toll. They understood "they get money back by the fact that the Web exists and we can all make money out of it."

This was the unanimous opinion of those standards experts present.

"People who claim open standards but make proprietary claims prevent the standard from working," said Bohannon. Things worked different in the hardware industry, he said. Things worked the opposite way around.

The debate had found a roundabout way of clarifying Humphries' opening statement that hardware, telecoms and patents were out of bounds for the UK's software consultation.

It was a necessary digression. Because the meeting was held in the shadow of the immense patent dispute being fought by the larger telecoms and software corporations in international courts. The hardware patent brigade has been making a land grab for the software domain. It has whipped up a storm that has rattled at the cage where the Cabinet Office keeps its policy team, just as it rattled at the doors of its consultation meeting on Friday.

The UK had with its open standards policy promised to create a place of sanctuary for software producers harried by bullyboy patent holders. Those software multinationals that have been trying to disturb the peace are the very same that have been using patents to crush Android, Google's open source mobile operating system: Microsoft, Oracle and Apple. Their big-booted mates in the telecoms industry have now barged through the door of the UK's open standards consultation. They want to call the shots. They want to extract fees at the points where software producers make their programmes talk to one another. They have laid down terms. Their terms are FRAND.

Tanks > lawn

Simon Phipps.jpgSimon Phipps, head of Sun Microsystems' open source programme until it was sold to Oracle, effectively told the telecoms experts, you are not wanted here.

"Their counsel is inapplicable to this consultation because this consultation is about the software market not the mobile phone market," he said.

The mobile and software markets worked on different terms, said Phipps, who had been a founder member of the Open Mobile Alliance, a telecoms standards body.

The mobile industry had sunk high capital costs into hardware it tried to recoup by claiming royalties over standards. The software industry did not. It co-operated in standards bodies like OASIS and the W3C to produce royalty free standards for the sake of the market. When the mobile industry veered into software territory, it tried to deal on its own terms. But the terms of competition in software were more subtle, he implied. Tolls where inapplicable.

Phipps accused the telecoms industry of running standards bodies that were "effectively a legally-arranged cartel". Gavigan said US legal precedent had created a possibility that they could be defined as such: they colluded, or co-operated, or whatever, for the purpose of locking out competitors.

Ram in Thicket - Sidney Nolan - 1982 - Wolseley Fine Arts Catalogue - Prints 2009.pngMallinson conceded Mpeg LA, a 'patent pool', was trolling software producers it might hit with patent fees. That effectively meant open source software producers.

Mpeg LA were not there to speak for themselves. But the outcome of the meeting would have been no different. They do not belong here. That's what the Cabinet Office said.

That is the way it will be unless the patent lobby manages to encumber UK software policy in a patent thicket as well.

FOI shows bureaucratic bungle behind open standards u-turn

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Standards institutions persisted in their opposition to the UK's open standards policy after Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude reassured them their fears about it were unfounded, according to letters released to Computer Weekly under Freedom of Information.

The revelation raises questions about the minister's subsequent withdrawal of the UK policy, on 30 November, which was by then under no substantial pressure bar lobbying from large US software companies and, bizarrely, the record industry.

A letter sent by Maude in June last year, and obtained by Computer Weekly, showed how he had even then already extinguished threats and fears raised by opponents of the UK open standards policy in official standards bodies in Chiswick and Geneva.

The International Standards Organisation and its UK franchise, the British Standards Organisation, had threatened that the coalition government would be in breach of international agreements if it persisted with the policy. This would have meant expulsion from the international standards community, a threat so severe that it sent the Cabinet Office into a tailspin of public consultations.

But the standards bodies had got it all wrong - and this they later admitted.

The letters now obtained by Computer Weekly suggest they either misunderstood the policy because their executive officers did not understand software standards issues, or they wilfully misinterpreted it to protect their business interests. Neither organisation was available for comment.

Francis Maude - Cabinet Office minister - letter to ISO - International Standards Organiastion - on open standards - page 1 - JUN 2011.pngISO had written to Maude on 18 May to protest UK policy amounted to a bar on its standards, which were protected by law.

It said the UK was otherwise seeking to distribute ISO standards free of charge.


Maude's reply in June told ISO it was mistaken. UK policy would require public procurement officials to specify open standards only "wherever possible". It recognised that not all technology the government required would satisfy its preference for open standards.

The upshot was that ISO standards might not be listed among those the UK recognised as open and mandated for use in public systems. The list was a measure to avoid problems like that experienced at Bristol City Council, which said it was locked-in to using proprietary Microsoft systems against its wishes.

But, Maude assured: "We do not plan to preclude their inclusion if they are the most fit for purpose in delivering our business needs. Therefore ISO, IEC and BSI standards may be included in the catalogue and in UK procurements."

The rules would have meant standards like the Open Document Format were mandated for use in government systems, while proprietary formats like, say, Adobe's pdf were approved for limited purposes in recognition of the fact that they had cornered a specific market in which there were no known alternatives.

It is not clear why ISO and BSI persist in lobbying against this policy on those points which the minister had assured them were misunderstood.


Maude met with Mike Low, BSI director of standards, in the week of 23 July to discuss the matter. But Lowe, a civil engineer who has held his post since 2003, was not satisfied.

BSI email to Cabinet Office summarising meeting between Mike Low and Francis Maude - 27 JUL 2011.pngLow said in an email to Maude on 27 July that he and the minister agreed UK policy should not rely on so narrow a definition of an open standard that it excluded other standards deemed important.

Speaking as UK representative of ISO, and in apparent ignorance of Maude's May letter, he said the government would "allay their fears" if it revised its definition of an open standard in a way that would encompass ISO standards.

He went on: "We recommend you clarify that the term open is not regarding the pricing/licensing models but the fact they must have been produced through an open process."

The sticking point for ISO was that part of UK policy said an open standard was one that prevented anyone from restricting its use through patent fees or licence terms.

Since Maude later retracted the policy (on 30 November) and put the question of what is an open standard out to public consultation, it looked like the minister had caved in on an IT policy that defined his party's position on matters as wide as open source software and how best to avoid Labour IT disasters like the NHS National Programme for IT.


BSI later confirmed that it had been assured by Maude's explanation. But only after Liam Maxwell, Cabinet Office director of ICT futures, had gone over it again with David Bell, BSI head of policy, in October. Maxwell gave the same assurances Maude had given in June and, presumably, July. This time, BSI said later, "We were reassured". Yet it still maintained its opposition to UK policy, only now without apparent justification.

In January, ISO said its 18 May letter had sought clarification on UK policy, expressing its fear that its standards "might no longer be eligible" for public systems in the UK because they didn't meet the UK definition of an open standard.

"In a reply in June 2011 the Minister of Cabinet Office noted the concerns raised and indicated these would be considered along with the results of the survey. We understand the UK Government is further considering actions it will take on the matter. In view of this we want to see what the UK Government's response will be to the analysis of survey results," said ISO.

It gave no indication that its concerns had already been addressed in a manner that had "reassured" its UK representative.

Labour IT mandarins make comeback bid for global transformation

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The last Labour government's "Transformational Government" project has been rebirthed in California as a plan for world-wide reform of seismic proportions.

Four leading emissaries of the initiative teamed up in London this month to argue against the UK's open standards policy and have tried to persuade the Cabinet Office to adopt their policy instead.

The group, convened as the Transformation Government Framework Technical Committee of the OASIS standards organisation, was formed in collaboration with Microsoft by officials of a government that became synonymous with IT disasters. It has recruited the World Bank and other international institutions to persuade governments around the world to adopt its transformational policy.

The TGF Committee has told governments they should drop policies that address technology directly - policies like the UK's open standards policy. It has discussed instead a plan for a world-wide technical standards body and its members have expressed a preference for the controversial FRAND standards the UK has been trying to purge from its computing infrastructure.

Having been launched at a December 2010 World Bank meeting on the premise that the market had already settled all standards dilemmas of any importance, the OASIS TGF proposed in its first official publications this Spring a reform programme that incorporated privatization, civil service job cuts and a hegemonous computing architecture that all governments must follow.

OASIS TGF TC.pngClose-knit

Former deputy e-Envoy Chris Parker formulated the plan with the help of Microsoft worldwide policy director Steve Mutkoski. It was published by his company CS Transform, which had been paid by Microsoft to do work on the theme.

John Borras, a consultant for CS Transform and a senior member of OASIS, convened the OASIS TGF committee around the CS Transform plans. Borras had worked under Parker in Labour's Cabinet Office as director of technology. Other founding members of the committee included Peter Brown, managing director of a Brussels-based software consultancy called Pensive SA, where Borras also worked as chairman, and Andy Hopkirk, who as a director of the UK National Computing Centre in 2000 had helped Borras and Parker implement the Labour government's IT strategy.

Brown, Hopkirk, Mutkoski and Parker argued against the UK coalition government's policy at the first meeting of the Cabinet Office's open standards consultation on 4 April. This was the same team that had launched the TGF with Borras at the World Bank.

Ajit Joakar, another opponent of government policy at the Cabinet Office meeting, was notable for support he gave Mutkoski and Parker when they first elaborated early ideas for the TGF committee in 2009. Linda Humphries, the Cabinet Office policy official who convened the April meeting, was a junior official when Borras, Parker and Hopkirk held their senior posts there.


Borras told Computer Weekly the World Bank, European Commission and the European Regional Information Society Association were all "keen" to implement the committee's plans. The World Bank is currently formulating an ICT strategy for developing countries, while ERISA represents local governments across Europe.

He denied the plans had been formulated from narrow interests. "There's no chumminess," he said. The OASIS committee was "open and transparent".

"I've worked with many of these people over the years. Working for the UK government, I built a network of contacts around the world.

"We feel technology is not a barrier any more. So the focus has moved to business change. Governments are not organised in a way that is conducive to delivering online services. They need to restructure the way they do business. We are trying to help them on the best way of doing that," said Borras.

He denied his group was promoting a political agenda. He said TGF had not proposed privatisation and job cuts - described in his committee's Framework as "mixed economy service provision" and "restructuring of the public labour market". He said the plan was for "restructuring of operations to maximise the delivery of the most efficient way". His committee had met with Cabinet Office officials who were considering its proposals.


Chris Parker told Computer Weekly Borras had known nothing about the Transformational Government plans being formulated at CS Transform until they were sent to him in 2010. He said Borras had merely been a consultant at CS Transform on a project basis. Parker said the original transformation plan had been formulated by Parker himself and Bill Edwards, a CS Transform director who also worked with Borras and Parker at the Labour e-Envoy Office as director of e-Communications, and also as managing director of Directgov. Edwards also joined their OASIS TGF committee.

Parker also played down Microsoft's involvement. He said CS Transform earned most of its income from governments. It had been paid by Microsoft but not specifically to produce the TGF proposals.

The TGF proposals were however formulated in collaboration Microsoft and CS Transform has co-branded a Microsoft brochure on the topic. Parker refused to discuss specific work CS Transform had done for Microsoft and whether the work had been supplied by Mutkoski, his colleague on the OASIS TGF.

Borras had in fact also worked for Parker at Gov3, the consulting firm the latter formed with Edwards on leaving the Labour Cabinet Office in 2004. Andrew Pinder, who as UK e-Envoy had been their ultimate boss in Labour's Cabinet Office, had launched Gov3 with them. Their work at the Cabinet Office had controversially produced a government system that forced people to use Microsoft technology.

Gov3 had similar proposals to those CS Transform adapted with the help of Microsoft to form the OASIS TGF committee. It was similar to their work at the Labour Cabinet Office. Borras said it was in fact an "evolution" of that work. The Gov3 work was also supported by the World Bank, where Borras, Edwards and Parker are official e-government advisers.

Borras said the OASIS TGF proposals did not require governments to adopt specific standards. But it was a topic the committee would address. It currently required government's to implement their computing infrastructure using the OASIS Service Oriented Architecture Reference Model.

Proprietary lobby triumphs in first open standards showdown

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Software patent heavyweights piled into the first public meeting of the Cabinet Office consultation on open standards on 4 April, conquering the meeting ballot with a resounding call to scrap the government's policy on open standards.

Open source and open standards campaigners complained they hadn't been invited to the Round Table event, the proceedings of which Cabinet Office will use to decide the fate of its beleaguered open standards policy.

Government supporters felt a growing sense of urgency over the consultation. Scattered and underfunded, they looked incapable of standing up to the big business interests that induced the consultation with backroom lobbying and have stepped forward now the debate has been brought out into the open.

Computer Weekly understands Cabinet Office officials regretted they hadn't got the meeting call out to a wider audience. Open standards supporters who attended complained it was stacked with opponents who easily dominated a meeting motion against the government's open standards policy.

Linda Humphries, Cabinet Office open standards official, said yesterday in a blogged report of the meeting: "The consensus was that the... proposed policy would be detrimental to competition and innovation."

Graham Taylor, chief executive of Open Forum Europe, which has worked closely with Cabinet Office IT policy makers, said he was "disappointed" the meeting hadn't been "representative".

Malcolm Newbury, consultant director at Guildfoss, said: "It was me and Graham against the rest. The patent lawyers had the most to say and they definitely wanted to include royalties on standards. They don't want the government to maintain its current position."

Heavyweights at the meeting included Steve Mutkoski, Microsoft's global head of standards, who flew in from Seattle. He was backed in debate by patent lawyers and experts from the telecoms industry that holds many of the patents being wielded against government policy.

Matthew Heim, senior director and legal counsel for $16bn US telecoms corporation Qualcomm, was present. As was Timothy Cowen, partner with Sidley Austin LLP, former general counsel for BT and founder of the Microsoft-backed Open Computing Alliance.

Behind them was Richard Kemp, senior partner at Kemp Little LLP, the "global top 10" ranked lawyer who represents numerous telecoms firms as well as record industry royalty collectors; Keith Mallinson, founder of WiseHarbor, a telecoms industry consultant; and Harshad Karadbhajne, a paralegal patent expert with Innovate Legal.

The debate swung wide of the truth as heavyweights complained government policy would exclude the patented software standards supported by their preferred software licence, known as FRAND - Fair, Reasonable, and non-Discriminatory.

Government policy, withdrawn under organized pressure from the patent lobby last year, had however not excluded FRAND. It had proposed giving preference to royalty-free software standards in government systems, but conceded FRAND standards might be used when there was no alternative.

That is the matter now in consultation. The patent lobby swiped the initiative with arguments that will feed those who accused it of using misinformation to win similar debates in other places, most notably Brussels, where a significant huddle of the heavyweights cut their teeth.

If they failed to expose genuine flaws in government policy, they at least focused attention on the points where government justification has appeared weakest. Cabinet Office's proposal for a mandatory list of open standards was unfair, they argued, because it would forbid standards encumbered with patents. This was however the whole point of the open standards policy, notwithstanding that it had, again, conceded patent-encumbered standards would be tolerated where no open standards where available.

These are the arguments with which the patent lobby induced government to withdraw its open standards policy last year and put it to consultation.

Open source campaigners said they had been left out. Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the Open Standards Consortium complained the meeting had been held without his knowledge. Linda Humphries had just days before attended a British Computer Society meeting where Gavigan delivered a talk about her policy consultation. Gavigan had locked antler's with Microsoft's Mutkoski at the meeting. But Humphries had not brought the Cabinet Office event to people's attention.

Richard Melville, a member of the BCS Open Source specialist group, said: "No-one seemed to know about the meeting at all."

Simon Phipps, former head of open source at Sun Microsystems, and who also regretted missing the meeting said: "I'm hearing from sources that the Cabinet Office hasn't had much input from open source interests and is being lobbied extremely heavily by the forces of monopoly."

Other people at the meeting included Peter Brown, secretary to the board of standards body Oasis, who argued forcefully in favour of patent-encumbered standards. And also Ajit Jaokar, founder of research company Futuretext, a telecoms expert with a self-professed leaning for open systems; Dr Andrew Hopkirk, an independent consultant, formerly of the National Computing Centre; and Aingaran Pillai, open source software engineer and founder of Zaizi, an Alfresco systems integrator.

Microsoft redeploys OOXML in open standards battle

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Microsoft has been trying to persuade the British government to break its promise to back a single document format, Computer Weekly has learned.

If Microsoft's lobbying succeeds it will require the Cabinet Office to erase yet another crucial element of its flagship ICT Strategy, giving the software giant trump cards over the standard that set the terms of competition for its competitors.

Microsoft advised the UK Cabinet Office to appoint two official document standards, one of which should be its own Microsoft Office Open XML format. The other, Microsoft said in private lobbying, should be the one government officials have favoured and has been widely assumed to be the one sure thing in the coalition government's technology policy: the Open Document Format.

The government's ICT strategy made a single, open document format the primary objective of its open standards policy when it was published last year.

"The first wave of compulsory open standards will determine, through open consultation, the relevant open standard for all government documents," it said.

Though Cabinet Office since retracted its open standards policy after lobbying from Microsoft on another issue, putting it out to public consultation, it has given no sign that its promised official document standard may also be up for grabs.

Francis Maude launching the Conservative Technology Manifesto - 30 MAR 2010.pngMake or break

The government is now faced with a decision of apparently insignificant proportions that but goes to the heart of a technology policy the Conservatives said would solve the problems that had apparently beset Labour's big IT systems: most particularly, they said, the NHS National Programme for IT.

That decision is whether on the one hand to sanction an open document standard: the sort of standard the government said it would use to break big IT projects into manageable chunks and promote innovation by preventing a single powerful company from controlling the market. Or whether on the other hand to use Microsoft's standard.

It sounds straightforward because it is. But the details are so murky that the government might yet drop its principle and opt for Microsoft's standard instead.

Microsoft competitors began work on the original open document format in 2001 in an effort to breach its office software monopoly. Simon Phipps, who led the effort as the then head of open source at Sun Microsystems, said they invited Microsoft to take part and held the standard setting forum at the OASIS industry consortium. Microsoft refused, he says.

By the time ISO had accredited the Open Document Format as an official standard in 2006, policy makers were beginning to realise how important open standards were in preventing monopolies like Microsoft's forming in the first place. Microsoft retaliated by steam-rolling its document format through the ISO approval process and making it available free of charge and without royalty claims or restrictions: it made it open.

On that basis alone, Microsoft might now convince the Cabinet Office that there is no harm sanctioning both document formats. Both are open. But it would be a grubby compromise that would breach the principle of the government's election promises as well as the trust of those who believed it was serious about technology reform.

Market singular

The compromise has already tainted ISO's reputation as standards authority. There was already a document standard when Microsoft asked ISO to approve its format. ISO justified its decision by claiming the market had called for another document standard. But the market that called for Microsoft's standard was Microsoft itself, Microsoft's supply chain, and Microsoft's customers.

As ISO gave its approval controversially in February 2008, the European Commission issued Microsoft with a record €899m fine for abusing its dominant market position by restricting competitors through the use of its ubiquitous software standards.

It seemed absurd to have two standards for one thing. Phipps says it's like having different sorts of railway tracks. Trains designed for tracks of one gauge won't easily travel along tracks of another. David Bell, head of policy at the British Standards Institution, told Computer Weekly last month he knew of no other instances of different standards approved for the same thing.

In 2008, ISO's then president Rob Bryden told your correspondent the market would eventually have to decide between the two because there could ultimately be only one document standard.

Except that Microsoft was the market.

By 2010, local authorities with close ties to the team that drafted the government's open standards policy were complaining that Microsoft's hold over document standards was preventing them using competing software. The standards were incompatible, allowing Microsoft to retain possession of the market, charge monopoly rents, and keep innovative competitors at bay.

That was the point of the government's open standards policy: to regulate failed technology markets by removing barriers such as those inherent in proprietary standards like Microsoft's.

Francis Cave.jpgMicrosoft still is the market. Francis Cave, a publishing consultant and ISO document standards expert, says his clients all use Microsoft software and have no interest in open document formats. They care only that they can create, edit and share documents. Neither he nor they give much thought to market issues. Only large companies care about ODF because they handle such large amounts of money that they have a keener appreciation of what the Microsoft monopoly costs them.

Much the same may be said of ISO, a body which has no interest in markets. It may wash its hands of any responsibility for the consequences of its decisions, but the market will not deliver the justice Bryden assumed it would when his organisation approved a second document standard in 2008.

EU market regulators demonstrated just how injudicious ISO's stewardship of standards could be. It is now up to policy makers to set the rules of the game so another Microsoft doesn't create another stifling monopoly as the market moves into the cloud.

Tellingly, Cave says there had been a call for an "über-standard" to unite Microsoft's document standard and the open format. But the market hasn't got behind it.

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