The UK has put its year-old open standards policy up for public consultation after months of opposition from the British Standards Institution and proprietary software vendors.
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The move clarifies uncertainty about the coalition government's commitment to the open standards policy it nurtured in opposition, declared in January and made a central plank of its IT strategy in March. But while it suggests the Cabinet Office is prepared for a U-turn, it may raise support from interested parties that have not been represented by the powerful industry lobby that has been pressing for the policy to be diluted.
Computer Weekly has learned that Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance (BSA) have been lobbying the Cabinet Office to rewrite its open standards policy. Similar lobbying led the European Commission to water down the European Interoperability Framework (EIF), its own open standards policy, last year.
Liam Maxwell, Cabinet Office director of ICT futures, told Computer Weekly the consultation was intended to reach a broader constituency than he had reached through trade association Intellect informally since taking his post in September.
"There's a large amount of people who aren't members of that trade organisation who may feel they didn't know what was happening,” said Maxwell.
"So we would appreciate feedback in particular from members of the developer community - particularly the open data community - on why it’s so important for them. There's a core link between standards and economic growth. We are trying to tie those two together.”
He denied his informal consultation had been limited to those firms with the resources to lobby government.
Nigel Shadbolt, the University of Southampton professor appointed by the prime minister to chair the Transparency Board and oversee the government's open data programme, said: "What we are interested in is more widely adopted, simple open standards.
"Whether it’s referring to a government supplier, a road, hospital or education establishment, our interest is for data as one of the best platforms for interoperability.”
Sureyya Cansoy, director of government at Intellect, said the trade body's members had taken no single position and she was unable to relay their views.
Bill McCluggage, government's deputy chief information officer, said the EU's experience over open standards policy had informed the Cabinet Office decision to open a consultation.
"There are vested interests," he said. "Look at just how long it took the EIF. That was a two-year process to get to a point where the EU got a definition of an open standard."
On Monday, he told an industry conference the consultation was intended to produce a definition of an open standard "that stands up to legal challenge".
The consultation will put the UK's definition of an open standard up for negotiation. The UK definition reinstated the element of the EIF that had been removed after vigorous lobbying from the proprietary software industry represented by the BSA – the government view was that an open standard should be royalty-free.
The UK position has also been opposed by the British Standards Institution (BSI) and International Standards Organisation, which back royalty-based software interoperability standards. These lobbies have encouraged the UK to apply this proprietary standards model under the name of an open standard.
Computer Weekly has learned that the Cabinet Office has since September conducted informal consultations with the BSA, and held direct talks with Apple, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle. Other representations were made by Cisco, Research in Motion and Samsung.
Microsoft told the Cabinet Office that an open standard is one that requires the payment of royalties to intellectual property holders. It urged for the UK definition to be changed to reflect this, and said to do otherwise would damage UK economic interests.
In March, the Cabinet Office launched an informal public consultation on open standards. It did not have the power to launch a formal consultation because standards policy belongs officially to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which represents the BSI, and also opposed Cabinet Office IT policy.
The formal consultation has been launched by the Cabinet office after talks with BIS, said McCluggage. It was within Cabinet Office remit to do this because it was concerned only with IT standards and not as BSI was, with standards for all industries.
Francis Toye, managing director of Unlink Software, an SME supplier to the Ministry of Justice, said obstacles to interoperability were not usually technical: "They are mostly political problems. We rarely come across problems with technical interfaces. It's more about the interests of the parties."