"What's an open standard?" says ISO

The International Standards Organisation has admitted it doesn’t know what an open standard is, despite trying to have the UK’s open standards policy quashed.

The situation has left ISO and its franchise partners, such as the UK’s British Standards Institution, looking a lot less authoritative. While open standards are being branded onto statutes around Europe, and after more than half a decade of controversies so great it caused street protests against ISO’s treatment of the open standards issue, the legal authority on standards now refuses even to acknowledge its existence.

Yet ISO and its partners had so successfully lobbied against the UK open standards policy last year that the Cabinet Office withdrew it. And its lobbying, like that of all those who opposed the policy, concerned one specific question: what is an open standard.

ISO and its partners said the UK had got the answer wrong. So what then should it be? That’s what Computer Weekly has been pressing ISO to say since January.

“ISO does not have a definition of ‘open standard’,” is what ISO said finally this week.

It sounded incredible. But it exposed how frail ISO’s position had become.

Last year it had, along with other standards bodies and the software patent lobby, been trying to get the UK to change its definition of an open standard from one that forbade anyone claiming patent royalties on an interface or protocol to one that permitted them. But the redefinition would have made the official definition of open standards indistinguishable from the definition of a proprietary standard that just so happened to be the sort of standard favoured by ISO & co.

ISO and the rest of the standards and patent establishment has subsequently been unable to define an open standard because what they have been telling the UK government an open standard should be is indistinguishable from their proprietary model. They have been found out: they are in fact opposed to open standards, though they have not been as bold to say so; if it is not that ISO is too blockheaded to see it, it is then too artful to admit it.

The blockhead theory would be no surprise. The kernel of ISO’s standards policy is the patetn accord it struck in 2007 with the International Electrotechnical Commission and the International Telecommunication Union. It is a blanket policy to be applied to standards for everything from knob sizes and widget mechanisms to software interfaces. It sounds like a fudge because that’s what it is.

Malcolm Johnson, director of standards at the ITU, said when the accord was struck that it was a compromise between patent holders and “the interests of end-users”.

It was an act by which old-world standards bodies steeped in hardware patent traditions sought, in sweeping disregard of the differing modus operandi of software, to hold software producers to their old-world terms – like an overbearing parent, or an outmoded establishment fearful of losing its grip on power.

This lack of an open standards definition, let alone policy, is telling. It was formulated, or not, by the international network of ISO franchise bodies such as the BSI, whose seniors form the main constituent parts of the ISO governing council, its general assembly, and its technical advisory board. These members have in common a business model that is at odds with UK policy. The UK would have open standards that, like the standards maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium, are free at the point of use. ISO members use charges at that very point as a source of income. Their opposition to open standards must thus be couched in terms of their own financial interests as well as the financial interests of patent holders or they cannot be fully understood.

It is tempting in light of all this to look at the collective curriculum vitae of ISO’s governing officers and conclude, blockheads one and all: either too old, too fat or too comfortable; what do they know of software?

ISO president Dr. Boris Aleshin, former Russian deputy prime minister, is an aviation electronics expert. Vice president Sadao Takeda, former IT mandarin at the Japanese Ministry of Economy and Trade (Japan’s equivalent to the UK’s blockhead Department of Business, Innovation and Skills) is a former engineering academic. Technical vice president Dr. Elisabeth Stampfl-Blaha, a lawyer by training, is a career, old-world standards wonk. ISO treasurer Julien Pitton is a former Swiss investment banker and likely wearer of bow-ties. Rob Steele, ISO secretary general, is a chartered accountant.

(It is only how it looks, but that is how they look: like the Adam’s Family had landed cushy jobs in Geneva; or a recasting of the Soprano’s: Rob Steele is probably in therapy over his inability to come to terms with the progressive turn the world has taken since he took up the administrator’s cummerbund.)

The BSI has already admitted it did not know why it was lobbying against the UK’s open standards policy, only that is what it had been told to do by ISO in Geneva. ISO in turn says its policy is formed by constituents like BSI. Does anyone know what’s going on? BSI’s resident standards experts are from non-IT, engineering fields. It’s public policy expert is a career standards wonk who cannot explain its software policy either.

It was no surprise this week therefore when ISO was also unable to give Computer Weekly any examples of when it’s policy might be justified. That is, when it might be justified for a patent holder to make a claim on a software standard. Neither could BSI.