There is a hugely important debate taking place in the UK IT community at the moment, one that will have equally huge significance for almost everyone who buys IT in this country.
It’s about open standards – and in particular, what definition the UK government will use for the open standards policy that will determine much of the future of public sector IT procurement. But this isn’t just an issue for IT chiefs in government – the longer term implications will affect every IT leader in every sector. With government being such a major influence on IT suppliers, the policy it adopts will have a big input into the product development of any vendor that wants to sell to the public sector, and hence to the products they sell to the private sector too.
It’s a complex and often emotional debate.
For the layman, when software types start talking about patents and intellectual property and throwing around jargon and acronyms such as RF (royalty free) and FRAND (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory), there’s a natural tendency to switch off.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to get into that sort of detail here, although if you read on I will point you to other articles on Computer Weekly and elsewhere that will help to explain some of those finer points.
Instead, I want to point a finger at the supporters of open standards and open source – simply because they need to make their opinions heard more widely and loudly in this critical debate.
Let me explain.
There is a consultation underway, led by the Cabinet Office, to invite views on the proposed definition of open standards that the government wants to embed into its IT strategy.
Senior IT people in government want to free themselves from the perceived lock-in associated with proprietary software – to cut costs, increase choice, and open up the public sector market to a wider range of products and suppliers; to ensure a “level playing field” between large and small, proprietary and open source; to allow taxpayers’ money to be spent on the best outcomes, not the only product that is compatible. Few could argue that is not a good thing.
It’s no secret either that there are people in senior government IT positions who have long been proponents of open source and open standards – not least the new deputy government CIO, Liam Maxwell.
It’s equally no secret that there are those in government IT who feel the big suppliers that dominate Whitehall IT spending have not delivered value for money and their stranglehold needs to be reduced.
Understandably, open standards is seen as a way to achieve that.
That consultation process includes a number of public meetings, open to anyone with an interest in the topic to air and share their opinions and feed into the debate. There is also an online questionnaire inviting anyone to give their views. The Cabinet Office is being rigorous in ensuring it is open to, and seen to be open to, every side of the issue.
Earlier this week, Computer Weekly contributor Mark Ballard, who writes for our Public Sector IT blog, wrote a report based on his sources, which suggested that the first of these public meetings was dominated by the proprietary software lobby.
Mark has previously written about the extent to which major software firms such as Microsoft are lobbying government to ensure the open standards policy does not go down a path that might make it less likely or more difficult for buyers in its biggest UK customer to procure their proprietary products. You would expect them to do little else.
I leave it to you to decide whether this is “vested interests” or simply standard commercial practice.
Mark’s blog post has stirred up something of a hornet’s nest, with some participants refuting his reported version of events – and we have offered those participants a platform to air their views in response. We will be publishing their articles on ComputerWeekly.com very soon.
Nonetheless, there is a polarisation forming around what you might simplistically call the “open” lobby and the “proprietary” lobby. And there is a feeling that the proprietary lobby, with its greater resources, lobbying experience, and its business models at stake, is dominating the argument.
This has been the case for many years. I hate to say it, but in 12 years of reporting on IT, and many years before that working in the industry, I’ve seen the open lobby – open source developers, open standards proponents, free software fans, etc – spend too much time in the corner, huddled together saying to each other, “This is awful, dreadful, don’t they understand?”
That’s a personal observation – which I expect many in that lobby will disagree with, some quite strongly.
But the open lobby is facing something of an Agincourt here, its Waterloo, or Custer’s last stand, depending on your preferred historical analogy.
There are some great people in the open lobby, with relevant and important opinions, whom I have a lot of respect for.
But too many – not all, but a lot – are simply not vocal enough in this debate. They can say they are right until they are blue in the face, but “right” does not mean they will win. They have to play the game the way their opponents have set the rules – unless and until they start winning some battles, they will never get the chance to set the rules themselves.
Mark’s blog post reported that many in the open lobby felt the consultation meeting had not been publicised widely enough; there are some taking to Twitter to complain that they were not told about it or invited. Sorry, but that’s no excuse. You can’t complain you weren’t invited next time Microsoft (or whoever) signs a multimillion-pound deal with the government for “proprietary” software.
Get used to the fact that the game is not being played by your rules. You don’t win a hand of poker by betting with a five-card trick; you learn how to play a Royal Flush.
Now I’m not trying to say that one side is wrong or one side is right. It is a complex and highly nuanced topic. I have strong sympathies with many of the arguments of the open lobby, I’ll admit. But I can see the perspective of the proprietary suppliers too.
I will, however, urge the open lobby to mobilise itself, to organise itself as well as its perceived opponents. Don’t moan about not being at the meeting – go to the next one, and the next. Respond to the online consultation now. Comment on this blog post. Comment on Mark Ballard’s blog post. Comment on articles from people on both sides of the debate when they’re published here and elsewhere. Comment on any of the blogs or articles I’ve listed below.
Shout louder, walk taller, talk to your opponents and not just your supporters. Engage in the debate – actively, loudly, and with all the passion you have for the subject. Do it now. Whoever comes out on top of this critical debate, we need every voice on every side to participate.
There is only one community I want to win – and that’s IT buyers (and ultimately taxpayers, that means you and I). But we need every part of the supply-side to be equally involved if that is going to happen.
If you want an easy-to-read explanation of the jargon of FRAND and RF and so forth, I recommend this article: Ignore the extremists in the software standards wars – by Leading Edge Forum researcher Simon Wardley published on Forbes.com
By Mark Ballard on Computer Weekly’s Public Sector IT blog: