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Cabinet Office Plans Open Standards Consultation

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A fresh consultation will aim to clarify the government’s position on open standards

The Cabinet Office has confirmed that it is to launch a fresh public consultation on its open-standards policy, continuing the uncertainty around the government’s commitment to the strategy.

Liam Maxwell, the Cabinet Office director of ICT futures, announced the move at an industry gathering on Monday, 21 November, according to a Cabinet Office spokesman. The consultation will be open to contributions from all stakeholders, he said.

Open standards support

A date has not yet been set for the launch of the consultation, but it is likely to be in the new year, according to the Cabinet Office.

The government’s stance on open standards has attracted interest since it was announced in January, but thus far basic points on the policy have remained unclear, including what is meant by an open standard.

The way in which “open standard” is defined is crucial, because standards accepted as “open” by some may be effectively unusable by others.

A key issue is whether the standard must be royalty-free (RF), like the HTML standard, or whether it may include intellectual property that obliges the payment of royalties under Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) terms, as do many mobile telephony standards.

FRAND-based standards are difficult or impossible to implement in open source software, which must remain distributable on a royalty-free basis.

The government is under pressure from organisations such as the British Standards Institution (BSI) and International Standards Organisation (ISO) to ensure that FRAND standards are not excluded from its “open standards” definition.

The Cabinet Office has also reportedly held talks on the issue with the Business Software Alliance (BSA), Apple, IBM, Microsoft and Oracle.

Procurement

The government announced its support for open standards in IT procurement in January and detailed it in a policy note published early this year.

“When purchasing software, ICT infrastructure, ICT security and other ICT goods and services, Cabinet Office recommends that Government departments should wherever possible deploy open standards in their procurement specifications,” the note read.

The government conducted an informal online survey (PDF) on the open standards policy from 25 February to 20 May of this year to help in choosing specific open standards, as well as to help define the definition of an open standard.

A majority of respondents to the previous survey (68 percent) agreed that an “open standard” should be royalty-free.

In September comments by Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, seemed to recognise the fact that FRAND standards could be problematic.

In a written response to a question from Conservative MP Mike Weatherley, published on Hansard, Maude stated that: “FRAND specifications may present some difficulties for the open source software development model in terms of patents and royalties. To deliver a level playing field for both open source and proprietary software, open standards are needed.”

Maude’s response seems to indicate that the UK government recognises that open standards should be RF, and confirms its commitment to open source technology. In a further exchange between the two MPs, Maude added that “open source solutions present significant opportunities for improved value for money and the stimulation of a more competitive ICT environment.”

U-turn?

At the time, open source experts welcomed the response. “I hesitate to claim this as a victory for good sense, given the twists and turns of the previous year, but it does seem promising,” said blogger Glyn Moody. “Assuming that we don’t see another U-turn, it is also impressive that a UK Minister can respond to a Parliamentary question with this level of technical savviness: kudos to him and his advisers.”

The government claimed in its ICT cost-cutting strategy in March that it could save millions of pounds worth of public money through encouraging small business innovation and embracing open source technologies.

However, a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the BBC in September revealed that most government departments still spend the lion’s share of their IT budgets on software from big-name vendors, such as Microsoft and Oracle, rather than seeking cheaper open source alternatives.