The government's open standards policy is bold, important and very carefully written

The government has finally released its policy for open standards in IT – after an often controversial consultation process – and it will surprise and delight many observers who expected a meek compromise to the lobbying power of the software industry.

The new “Open Standards Principles” are bold, important, and clearly written with a smart lawyer and a clever linguist looking over the shoulder of the author. They are mandatory immediately for all central government IT purchases. And they will worry the big incumbent suppliers who have been used to a long-term lock-in to their products.

Here are a few of the boldest highlights from the policy document:

The product choice made by a government body must not force other users, delivery partners or government bodies, to buy the same product.

This is hugely significant. Think how many times you have bought the same software because the cost of integrating any other software would obviate the potential benefits from a product that may be better than what you currently have. Want to buy a Linux server, but can’t because it doesn’t integrate with your Windows Server software? That’s no longer allowed.

“Government bodies should expose application programming interfaces (APIs) for its services to enable value-added services to be built on government information and data.”

The idea of “government as a platform” has been discussed for some time, but formally encouraging APIs for private sector firms to develop services around public data takes that a big step forward. It is, admittedly, a very Tory policy – using IT to push public services out of the centre and to involve businesses in their delivery – but from a technology perspective it is forward thinking and far reaching in its implications.

“For government bodies that are identified as not adhering to the Open Standards Principles (e.g. through transparent reporting or spend controls cases), Cabinet Office may consider lowering the threshold for IT spend controls until alignment is demonstrated.”

In other words, if you don’t comply, the Cabinet Office will make you justify every minor piece of IT spend until you get so fed up with the scrutiny that you go along with the policy.

“As part of examining the total cost of ownership of a government IT solution, the costs of exit for a component should be estimated at the start of implementation. As unlocking costs are identified, these must be associated with the incumbent supplier/system and not be associated with cost of new IT projects.”

This is really clever. Proprietary software suppliers have long been protected by the prohibitive cost of moving away from their products. That cost is always considered as part of the business case for a new project – so the price of moving from incumbent supplier X to new supplier Y becomes part of the cost of moving to supplier Y, and usually that makes such a move unaffordable. Instead, the government will include the cost of moving away from supplier X as part of the initial business case for buying from them in the first place. In other words, the cost of moving away from an incumbent supplier is added to the purchase price for that supplier. That’s smart – and scary for a lot of supplier Xs.

“Other than for reasons of national security, essential government extensions or variations to open standards for software interoperability, data or document formats must themselves be made available under an open licence and be publicly shared to enable others to build upon them.”

In other words – if a supplier has to spend money to integrate their product to an existing, policy compliant, open-standards-based product, not only are they banned from passing that cost on to the government buyer, but they must also offer the result of their integration work for free to other government buyers. That’s going to hurt a proprietary software provider.

“Rights essential to implementation of the standard, and for interfacing with other implementations which have adopted that same standard, are licensed on a royalty free basis that is compatible with both open source and proprietary licensed solutions.”

This is perhaps the most controversial policy of all. Much of the heated debate in the consultation process came from well-funded lobbying by the big software suppliers (you know who they are) to convince government that software provided under a Frand (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) licensing policy could be defined as an open standard.

In effect, their argument was that even if you have to pay a royalty to a third-party for their ownership of all or part of a standard, then it was still an open standard. The Cabinet Office disagreed. They disagreed before the consultation, and went through the consultation so they could justify to somebody else’s lawyers that they had properly considered the arguments over Frand. And then they came up with a policy that disagreed anyway.

This clause is the essence of one of the primary goals of the whole open standards policy – to create a level playing field between proprietary and open-source software.

It’s worth stating that royalty-free does not mean that you have to use free software to be considered open. But it does mean that to be considered open, you cannot include a standard that costs money. It means that proprietary, patented standards are not considered open if government is paying a royalty (whether overtly or hidden in pricing) for their use.

Open source software, by the nature of its licensing, cannot include royalty-encumbered standards. If an open-source supplier wanted to interoperate with a proprietary product using a Frand-based standard, it would be prohibited from doing so by the fact that open source has to be publicly shared, and you’re not allowed to publicly share software that carries a royalty. So the open-source product is prevented from integrating with the proprietary, Frand-based “open” product.

So the rejection of Frand is going to worry the big incumbent suppliers more than anything.

Of course, a policy has to be implemented, and the big test will be the first time that Microsoft, or Oracle, or whoever, loses a deal because they are not considered to be open standards compliant, and then we’ll see how much they want to fight the decision through the courts, and whether the government has the stomach for that fight.

But by producing the open standards principles that it has, the Cabinet Office has signalled that’s a fight it is willing to take on. Seconds out…

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