UK insists open standards order will apply to COTS

The UK government has insisted its open standards order will require proprietary commercial software suppliers use open standards in all government systems, despite the edict not actually saying anything about commercial software, and even appearing to exclude it.

If UK open standards policy – introduced Thursday – will indeed do what the government says it will, it will break the primary means commercial software suppliers use to assert monopoly power over their customers.

Such a move would be a landmark in the history of computing. But the government slipped it out out with muted fanfare last week, and then did its best to avoid answering awkward questions about it.

The crucial question is why the policy neglected to address commercial or off-the shelf software (COTS) producers explicitly, when its extent was otherwise stated clearly for every possible eventuality where pressure or convenience might cause government bodies to ignore the open standards order.

COTS companies Microsoft and Oracle, who dominate UK public IT spend, had opposed the open standards policy so fiercely they caused the government to hold it back for two and a half years. The policy was about breaking their hold over public sector IT in the first place. Their opposition had nearly succeeded in burying the policy altogether. Now it had been published it didn’t mention them at all. Had they been given a get out?

Other crucial questions included whether the Cabinet Office has any power to impose the policy without enacting legislation, and whether the intransigence of COTS producers will make them automatically eligible for official exemptions built into the scheme.

Say one thing

The Cabinet Office insisted its policy would extend over COTS producers.

“The Open Standards Principles document is clear that for all new government IT expenditure government bodies must specify compulsory open standards, unless an exemption has been agreed,” said a Cabinet Office spokeswoman.

“As we consider there is no difference between COTS and bespoke systems in this regard, we have not further specified any difference in the Open Standards Principles,” she added.

Computer Weekly has nevertheless learned through unofficial channels that the Cabinet Office is now examining ways to append an official clarification to the policy, to address COTS producers explicitly.

The Cabinet Office might say it applies. But on paper it may not.

The Open Standards Principles decreed 40 “absolute requirements” for open standards in government computer systems. Some of these may have some influence over government purchase of COTS software. But the carefully-worded document did not claim explicit power over COTS. It even appeared to exclude it.

Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the Open Source Consortium, a software trade group, said questions must be asked about why the policy was “silent on COTS”.

He said the Cabinet Office might also be unable to enforce the policy unless it enacted it in legislation. It would anyway only apply to central government departments. Most public sector IT spend occurred elsewhere.

“Gruyere has a lower hole density,” he said. “But none of this would matter if the intention is there.”

Official view

Graham Taylor, chair of Open Forum Europe, an open software trade body backed by Oracle, and who has been industry’s main liaison and collaborator with the Cabinet Office policy team, said he believed the open standards policy would apply to COTS.

The policy might not have addressed COTS directly. But a policy background paper had given vague attention to a COTS question that had been asked in the UK’s public consultation on open standards, also published last Thursday.

The government said in the backgrounder it had some sympathy for the idea that its policy should apply to COTS as well as bespoke government systems. It did not say it would. Just that an overwhelming majority of people in the public consultation said it should.

The backgrounder, the government’s response to the consultation, said this rationale “would appear to be appropriate.”

It did not matter to Taylor that this rationale had not been turned into an explicit clause in the policy.

“Buying a piece of software off-the-shelf is no different in terms of the principles to going out to a tender on an integration contract or something,” he said.

He believed it the policy didn’t need to be explicit about COTS. It included a clause that would require government departments to specify open standards in their procurement frameworks. He believed this was enough.

The policy also restated oft-ignored EU procurement regulations that should normally prevent COTS producers being handed undue power in public procurements: it re-forbade public bodies from using trade names as parameters in procurement competitions.

All of these conditions – that did not explicitly apply to COTS but did at least imply that they might – would also be subject to exemptions. Government departments could opt-out of their implied obligations to apply the policy to COTS when they thought there was no choice but to ignore them.

It could be imagined, for example, that a software monopoly that effectively imposed its own proprietary standard as the market standard, might prevent open standards emerging or might simply prove unmovable, or might give cursory support for open standards that would win a contract but prove so unworkable in practice that a revert to its own standard would be inevitable.

Say another

The Cabinet Office fumbled over the question of COTS on Friday. It excused the policy with the same reasoning Oracle’s open software campaign group did: that the powers implied in the policy backgrounder were enough: that an explicit power in the policy was unnecessary.

This did not make sense for a policy that had been necessarily pedantic. The government had conducted a two-and-a-half year review to settle a semantic question that had been at the centre of its conflict with COTS suppliers: the question of what an open standard actually is.

The pedantic policy also clarified the semantics of its own language so there could be no uncertainty that when its principles stated something “must” be done this was an “absolute requirement”; and when they stated that something “should” be done, it was conditional. It left no stone unturned in the specification of requirements it said government government bodies to meet to be compliant with the policy. Furthermore, the government’s two-and-a-half-year review had been motivated by a fear that its policy might be subject to a legal threat from COTS producers if it didn’t get it right.

COTS was conspicuous for its absence.

The policy’s intention, however, was clear. Government bodies would be required to build open standards into their user requirements. They would work as a community on the identification and promotion of compulsory open standards. A complex set of requirements would ensure they put enough thought into their choice of standards, so they faced the same sort of economic and systems questions that had led the government to back open standards in the first place.

When the government later clarified its position on COTS, it said it was obvious that in respect of all these measures COTS would get the same treatment as bespoke software. So it did not need to distinguish between them in the policy, it reckoned.

And anyway, said a Cabinet Office spokeswoman, the policy said it would apply to “all new government IT expenditure”. That meant COTS as well as bespoke systems.

But it had defined “all government IT expenditure” as “new systems” or “extensions to existing systems”. That implied not COTS. It also implied the inherent difference between COTS and not COTS: possession, power and influence.

So when it came down to brass tacks, in the face of intransigent and potentially litigious COTS producers and procurement officers given to the path of least resistance, would the open standards policy apply to COTS or not?