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Are open standards a closed barrier?

Fresh out of a roundtable discussion on the Open Standards: Open Opportunities consultation, Linda Humphries discusses whether open can really mean closed.

Ask a seemingly simple question, 'So what exactly is an open standard?' and a multitude of variations and interpretations are likely to head your way – a quick scan of Wikipedia will give you a flavour. So how do we decide which definition is right for the Government when we are applying it to our IT?

The trick is to look at what we're trying to achieve.

In the Government's IT systems we're looking to cut costs. We think that by improving connectivity across government systems we'll be able to share more solutions. That should help us to reduce how much we need to buy. We also want to make sure that we have flexibility and choice when we buy IT, so that we don't get locked in with one supplier or one product. Lots of competition and diversity should give us the opportunity to swap between suppliers and to get better services at a lower cost. Additionally, let's not forget the Government's key commitment to levelling the playing field for open source software, making sure that there is fair access to opportunities for both proprietary and open source software providers in government IT procurement.

In essence, what we're looking for is software interoperability and a way of moving coherent information and data freely between systems.

So now we're clear on what we're trying to do, the definition should be a doddle, right? Not so. We first set out over a year ago by providing a definition and then opening up a survey to get some feedback (PDF). That gave us a great start in refining our definition and led to a lot of debate around patents, the impact of mandating standards and how we align with European and international initiatives. We took that on board and launched a public consultation in February, which includes a revised definition and asks some more searching questions to help us dig further into the issues. The material we gathered from the survey we'll be taking on board as part of the evidence but as we now have a new definition and some searching questions to consider, we need you to take another look.

The questions that the consultation poses are complex, so we have also arranged some events to give people the opportunity to explore and debate the topics.

The first roundtable event, which took place last week, focussed on Competition and European Interaction. The consensus was that the definition and proposed policy would be detrimental to competition and innovation and a mandatory list of open standards could in fact be a closed barrier.

The majority of the attendees considered that open standards, as defined in the policy, would close down the Government's ability to benefit from an alternative standards development model and limit our choice – not least because they considered that the definition excludes standards that are made available on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms.

Let us know if you agree. You can get involved in the online consultation or look out for more events and sign up to join in with one of the debates, or you can keep in touch with us on Twitter: @ICT_Futures

Finally, please don't be daunted, we know the questions are tough. That's why we need your help to get the answers right. You don't have to respond to all the questions, if there is just one you have a case study for, or if you feel strongly about a particular topic but only have time to answer a couple of the questions, we'd still love to hear from you.

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  1. Comment by Demo Zaizi » What Open Standards & Open Source mean to government and citizens posted on

    [...] Cabinet Office also wrote its version of events in this article “Are open standards a closed barrier?”  The article included this statement… The majority of the attendees considered that open [...]

  2. Comment by Liz Azyan » Blog Archive » Make Conversations Possible: What Open Standards and Open Source means to government and citizens posted on

    [...] Cabinet Office also wrote its version of events in this article “Are open standards a closed barrier?” The article included this statement… The majority of the attendees considered that open [...]

  3. Comment by An insider’s view on the government open standards consultation | | posted on

    [...] brevity, I have made my comments below assuming that readers are already familiar with Linda Humphries’ original blog posting on the Government Digital Service blog and the report on Computer Weekly’s Public Sector IT [...]

  4. Comment by What Open Standards and Open Source means to government and citizens - Blogs - Zaizi Ltd posted on

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  5. Comment by What Open Standards & Open Source mean to government and citizens posted on

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  6. Comment by Ajit Jaokar posted on


    Thanks for the meeting.

    As an attendee - here are my thoughts

    I approach this issue from the world of Telecoms which I am most familiar with.

    It is overly simplistic to exclude telecoms from the argument of open standards especially in a ‘post PC’ world where mobile devices will dominate

    When we include Telecoms, we also see the value of IPR in standards.

    Many successful standards like GSM which have licensing that includes IPR – and have been proven to be successful.

    We will see the same discussions for HTML5 as well ie it is a web standard but with implications for the mobile web

    Many in telecoms see it as a slippery slope – ex the standards hub Standards hub - covers a wider discussion of standards. So, I see an artificial dichotomy in separating telecoms and hence agree to the belief that competition and innovation will be enabled through a more telecoms-like standards approach – ex through FRAND.

    Excluding such companies and innovation will be detrimental to the interests of UK companies and startups ex a UK company like picochip depends on IPR to create innovation (

    I look forward to continuing the discussion

    Kind rgds

    • Replies to Ajit Jaokar>

      Comment by putt1ck posted on

      A simple reason why there's a difference between hardware and software standards in this context: if I'm making hardware product I will incur a cost for every copy of that product I produce, so having a small charge for IPR in a standard is less of an issue; if I'm making software I can produce infinite copies for no cost, so any charge for the use of a required standard is out of proportion to the cost of production.

      Regardless, competition and innovation are not suppressed by standards, they are encouraged by it. Even in telecoms. There's a difference between making money from the sale of licence of your (real, valuable to society) IPR and making money from cleverly introducing your IPR into a standard. GSM was successful because it was mandated by EU, not because it had IPR in the standard.

      • Replies to putt1ck>

        Comment by Ajit Jaokar posted on


        Thanks for your comments.

        The HW/SW boundary blurs in many cases.
        ex - consider that some of the most interesting developments come from hardware acceleration of Javascript - - here the distinction is not that neat. You find similar examples for video codecs (in HTML5)

        Re GSM mandated by the EU: In that case, we are making a case for a governance body (in this case EU) backing an IPR based standard(GSM) and making it a commercial success - sounds like a win-win situation for all in my view 🙂

        kind rgds

  7. Comment by Stephen posted on

    Will Daniels said "It irks me that my business runs perfectly well using 100% Free and Open Source Software but to file my accounts I need to borrow my partner’s Windows PC with Adobe Reader. Companies House also sent me a technical spec document in Microsoft Word format once. Why? They can’t just export it as something more portable?"

    -Will had exactly the same problem myself recently. I suspect it was sold as a cross platform solution but I ended up having to seek access to a windows pc to complete the submission. I will be providing them with feedback regarding this, hope you do the same and also reinforce them by submitting your comments into the consultation.

    • Replies to Stephen>

      Comment by Andy posted on

      @ WIll, @ Stephen, Such are fine examples of how government needs to get a grip on itself internally. It's just bad practice and just not necessary today to persist in presenting a compulsory to use (if that's what it is?) public service in such a manner - surely none would disagree? However the problem is nothing to do with standards or with the source of the software code used to make the service or to use it -- for solutions for all (or a fair range of) combinations can be made. Indeed, software developers are rather good at solving such interface problems. Rather, the problem is with the persistence of a (now) poor quality, restricted options version 1.0(?) public service over time; so the proper place to complain is not with standards chosers or software code sources, it's with the management of the service in question who need to be doing a better job for all their customers not just some. Do I recall correctly that the BBC i-Player service had similar 'platform' troubles once upon a time..but management fixed that over time without agonising over 'standards and source code type selectivity' debates?

      • Replies to Andy>

        Comment by willdaniels posted on

        @diabulos "As for willdaniels little problem, PDF is an open standard"

        Not the way Companies House and HMRC do it apparently, and that is using Adobe's own Linux version of Adobe Reader.

        But my point was that probably some Adobe exec sat there and told HMRC/CH managers "it will work on any platform" and they thought (hopefully) "good, that meets this 'open' criteria then, so let's give them loads of money" when what they might have done, if there were a stronger committment to open standards, was employ some programmers or an open source company to build their forms using XForms, so that everybody in the country can benefit from that work.

        In any case, albeit tangential, a dearth of viable implementations on community platforms should be taken into consideration irrespective of "open standards" in public organisations.

        PS: Little problems that happen to lots of people are ultimately very similar to big problems.

        @Andy it wasn't a complaint, it was an example of why open standards should be a commitment from the top down. When I did complain to the relevant service providers, I was able to reference a document I found published at the cabinet office website that appeared to be committing the government to use open standards (

        I strongly agree with that initiative and I do not accept superficial fluffy statements about "innovation" (and as a self-employed, "innovative" software engineer I feel relatively entitled to do so in this context) as a reason for the government to continue to overspend on IT - and discriminate against minority platforms and small businesses in doing so - just because civil servants would find it convenient to buy an expensive COTS system instead of investing money internally to acquire the IT expertise to deploy open solutions using open technologies.

        I have yet to see a relevant example in this thread of where open standards are unavailable or unsuitable for meeting some government requirement. I think most likely this "roundtable" meeting was attended by a lot of people with vested interests in the government buying COTS solutions, or in making their job easier, which is just not excusable in the public sector using tax-payers money.

        But as mentioned, "standards" can refer to many different types of things. I naturally think of my own limited interactions with the government, which are simple things like forms and documents (for which the use of proprietary platforms is inexcusable) and APIs to query company registration details, validate VAT numbers and so on (which are thankfully open, even if their documentation isn't). I am willing to accept that there may be times (like where there are hardware production costs or truly _new_ and innovative research is required) when insisting on open standards _could_ in theory be crippling to some specific thing.

        But I would hate to see a reduced committment to open standards globally due to a few corner cases. That is why I jumped on the link to oppose the author's suggestion.

  8. Comment by UK Open Standards Consultation « Microformats & the semanantic web posted on

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  9. Comment by Nick Jackson (@jacksonj04) posted on

    Here's a definition of an open standard which I think meets the requirements:

    I, as a member of the public, with nothing more than a computer (be it Windows, OS X or Linux), a programming language (of my choice, some languages may make it easier than others) and a bit of know-how, should be able to read and understand the data. This includes getting hold of any documentation of the standard that I need, without relying on reverse-engineering. Note that 'nothing more' does not include having any additional resources in the form of – for example – money to buy standards documents or to licence the use of them.

    I totally understand that not all data which is using an open standard will necessarily be open data, and I'm not advocating that all data is made publicly available.

  10. Comment by Businesses Can’t Afford to Neglect Customer Service on Facebook - The Society – Entrepreneurs Epicentre posted on

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  11. Comment by Antonio Acuna (@diabulos) posted on

    This issue, although extremely important, is, as others have said above, not easy to resolve. I think the question goes beyond 'standards' and enters into realm of competition and innovation. As the post clearly points out, choosing one set over another could be just another form of discrimination; someone is disadvantaged. The public sector as well, by creating an elite list of accepted standards, could just be keeping itself out of new developments and be held hostage to whatever process there will be to select what gets on the list future come.

    The post also makes very clear that the aim is 'making sure that there is fair access to opportunities for both proprietary and open source software providers in government IT procurement' that points to finding balance, a balance probably to maintain an environment of innovation not to demonize copyright, proprietary solutions or different business models.

    As for willdaniels little problem, PDF is an open standard and the Free Software Foundation has had it in its high priority list for a while until Oct 06, 2011 when it declared that libpoppler, a common PDF library on GNU/Linux fully supported the PDF standard. It is now up to developers to come up with good software for Linux, sure Adobe SHOULD have come up with the best one, but it did not, that does not invalidate the use of PDF for things that need to maintain their format integrity, such as forms. It is not an issue of open standards or open formats, it is an issue of software availability on a given platform (and not for lack of code to do it)

    As for your DOC issue, I agree, the format being a half breed of disclosed and undisclosed details but funnily, when talking about government's ability to catch up with open formats, for example, most Knowledge Management Systems (in government and out there in the world at large) do not support storing ODF (Open Document Format) and if they did would be at the cost of upgrading. That's the state of play, changeable? sure, but it takes cash and time to do so, that should not deter us from doing it, but responsibly.

    So this is not going to get solved now, is it a battle between waving the open data/open standards/open source,supporting the status quo of monolithic providers with locked up solutions or leveling the playing filed and letting the best and most appropriate win in any given occasion? and more importantly, would a standard list preclude proprietary formats at the expense of innovation in the proprietary business model side of things? or should the conversation just be, as the post points out, about selecting standards (formats, for example) across government to secure efficiencies and inter-operability across systems and not about what business model they happen to fall under? (as long as there is no lock-in)

    I guess the best everyone can do is contribute to the consultation.

    • Replies to Antonio Acuna (@diabulos)>

      Comment by putt1ck posted on

      Most knowledge management systems don't support open standards? That's simply unacceptable on the part of the developers. ODF reading libraries are widely available and on any licence you care to name, so not supporting ODF is laziness, incompetence or some more unpleasant motive; any of those should be enough to discount using said KMS. Of course, there's always Alfresco.

      And on FRAND. I'm fine with FRAND. It's just that it's not reasonable, fair and definitely not non-discriminatory to charge for use of a standard when the software made to comply with it is available for no charge. Charging assumes the (entirely artificial) cost of the standard will be passed on to the purchaser of the product; if it's not being charged for, there cannot be a charge. So making it clear that open standards means not charging for use of the standard doesn't mean not FRAND, it just clarifies what that must mean.

      PS if I'd known the roundtable was going to be dominated by people who want to ensure government ICT costs stay high by pushing a line of nonsense I'd have come along to ensure the reasonable message was louder.

    • Replies to Antonio Acuna (@diabulos)>

      Comment by putt1ck posted on

      Knowledge management systems that don't support open standards? Unforgivable.

  12. Comment by What I’ve been reading | DavePress posted on

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  13. Comment by Henrik Grubbström posted on

    If the problem for a company is that their proprietary standard isn't accepted because it is FRAND, it should be a simple matter for them to change the licensing criteria for the standard (they do after all own the standard), so the actual problem is that they don't want competition.

  14. Comment by willdaniels posted on

    Could really use some firm examples here.

    "benefit from an alternative standards development model"

    Benefit how exactly? Who is going to benefit? This is meaningless without elaboration.

    "Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms"

    Who is going to decide what is "fair and reasonable"? People have different views about that. Is it OK to discriminate against the 1-2% Linux users? Is that small enough to neglect? Is it "reasonable" to make people install proprietary software that they can't inspect/maintain and don't want, or can that be dismissed as an unreasonable "political" position?

    It irks me that my business runs perfectly well using 100% Free and Open Source Software but to file my accounts I need to borrow my partner's Windows PC with Adobe Reader. Companies House also sent me a technical spec document in Microsoft Word format once. Why? They can't just export it as something more portable?

    What worries me about all this is that Adobe supposedly provides a version of it's software for other platforms, yet the Linux version has never worked properly with the Companies House and HMRC forms. So probably some Adobe exec has sold their products on the idea that it is cross-platform, yet apparently that is not the case in reality. Either that or these organisations just don't care.

    Either way, the solution for me is to keep pressing for fully open standards having multiple software implementations on all platforms. Such standards already exist for forms, documents, images, video, websites and data. What else do you need? What benefits are you missing if you adopt them instead of relying on expensive, bloated, proprietary junk?

    Better to invest public money engaging in openly-designed, community-developed solutions for the benefit of all. Save your license fees and employ some decent technologists to deploy open solutions instead.

  15. Comment by Mo (@nevali) posted on

    There’s clearly a balance to be struck between “limiting the range of standards options which can be considered” and “limiting the ability for anybody and everybody to benefit from the use of those standards” — there really is a straightforward push/pull between these two. If you say that FRAND (or even non-FRAND) standards are fine, then you're obviously limiting the outcomes to “those who can afford to pay”. In contrast, if you say “anybody must be able to access the standard and produce implementations conforming to it contingent upon nothing except technical ability”, then you’re limiting which standards can be employed.

    In some cases, there is no choice: there's only one widely-used standard in a particular arena, and you just use it.

    In other cases, there might be competition between a FRAND and completely-open standard — and sometimes you can avoid the tug-of-war by embracing both alongside one another.

    That leaves the tricky case where there are competing FRAND and completely-open standards and no easy way to embrace both. I don't think there's a hard-and-fast answer to that, and the only approach is consideration upon merit. However, my personal feeling is that given the potentially *very* long-term basis and public service nature of this sphere, requiring royalty payments for further use or implementation by others should probably count against a standard to some extent in the evaluation.