Microsoft publishes its response to government open standards consultation

Microsoft has become the first major IT supplier to publish its submission to the government's consultation on the use of open standards.

Microsoft has become the first major IT supplier to publish its submission to the government's consultation on the use of open standards.

The consultation closed on 4 June, with the Cabinet Office IT team under deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell now considering the responses.

The consultation has been clouded by controversy, as Microsoft and other major firms lobby government officials over the outcome of a process that is likely to determine how government purchases software and the future role of open source.

The first public meeting during the process, for interested parties to discuss the issues around open standards, was subsequently scrapped after it transpired that the supposedly independent chairman of the meeting was in fact being paid by Microsoft to give advice on the supplier's response.

Microsoft's 37-page submission has now been published on the blog of Mark Ferrar, national technology officer for Microsoft UK.

In a letter to Maxwell to accompany the submission, Ferrar sought to address one of the most contentious areas of the consultation – the use of standards that attract royalty payments for their use, known as fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) licensing terms.

Critics say that any software standards requiring FRAND terms will ultimately restrict interoperability and limit innovation, but Ferrar urged the government to include FRAND in its definition of open standards.

"We believe that the government’s objectives will be met by a definition that recognises that there are a broad range of useful specifications that are licensed FRAND terms and that enable products and services to interoperate," said Ferrar.

"A definition that would limit the government only to specifications that emerge from a narrower set of standards-setting organisations, or that would constrain the charges that can be set for access to the specification or to patented technology included in the standard is likely to prevent the government from utilising best-of-class technology or products in the future."

Ferrar insists that critics of FRAND are basing their arguments on incorrect assumptions.

"Advocates for a more narrow definition have suggested that owners of patented technology included in a standard must agree to license the technology on a royalty free basis for the standard to be considered open," he said.

"They suggest among other justifications for their restrictive definition that any requirement for payment as a condition of use of such patented technology would constitute a barrier to implementation and might actually preclude some open source software developers from implementing the standard.

"Microsoft believes there is inconclusive research and data on the issue of whether and to what extent patent royalties do create barriers to entry for certain IT vendors."

Supporters of royalty-free software standards counter that FRAND terms can only constrain innovation and encourage lock-in to proprietary products.

In an article for Computer Weekly published in April, Gerry Gavigan, chairman of the Open Source Consortium, said that failure to promote royalty-free open standards for software in the public sector has wide consequences.

"The public sector is less able to reduce its dependence on a small group of suppliers. Users of online public services are more constrained in their choice of software. [And] users of online public services become locked in to a small group of suppliers," he said.

Ferrar, however, concludes his letter to Maxwell by urging the government to "promote the use of open standards which have reached a sufficient threshold of market acceptance, including multiple standards where they exist, and that the government should be careful not to impose restrictive mandates for standards that have not achieved market acceptance."

The government's aim is to adopt a policy for open standards that reduces the cost of IT to the public sector by increasing choice, improving interoperability and avoiding supplier lock-in.

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