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Dear Cabinet Office, what part of open standards don’t you understand?

Cabinet Office logoThe Cabinet Office has announced a consultation on ‘open standards’ for software interoperability, data and document formats in government IT. This is the second such consultation on open standards: in January ComputerWeekly said it had unearthed evidence that Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance (BSA) had successfully pressurised the UK government into withdrawing its January 2011 definition of open standards, which would have been favourable to open source suppliers. Whether or not there was nobbling going on, the fact that the Cabinet Office is organising a second consultation on open standards clearly shows it has having trouble with the definition of the term. Let’s help them out.

The first port of call with any unknown word or phrase is, of course, the dictionary. The dictionary definition of open is:

Free of access; not shut up; not closed; affording unobstructed ingress or egress; not impeding or preventing passage; not locked up or covered over

The above definition clearly demonstrates that open implies unrestricted: in software terms, this would exclude proprietary software and file formats. 🙂

Now, what does the dictionary say about standard?

Being, affording, or according with, a standard for comparison and judgement; as, standard time; standard weights and measures; a standard authority as to nautical terms; standard gold or silver.

Once again, there’s no hint of anything proprietary is there? 😉

Let’s put the 2 words together and see what definitions can be found for ‘open standard’. The first result to pop up in my search is Wikipedia, which states:

An open standard is a standard that is publicly available and has various rights to use associated with it, and may also have various properties of how it was designed (e.g. open process).

The Wikipedia article goes on to state that where governments and organisations do have a definition of open standards these are royalty-free. Once again this precludes the use of closed, proprietary formats and standards for which fees or licensing costs have to be paid.

Consequently, we fail to see why the Cabinet Office is having such difficulty with what an open standard is. Could it be that the cosy world of Sir Humphrey and those comfortably aboard the gravy train is being threatened and the Whitehall mandarins and oligopolists who benefit from the status quo are resisting change? Compared with what has recently happened in the USA in New Hampshire (news passim), the UK government’s attitude to anything associated with the word open – be it source, standards or data – can be summed up in four other words: too little, too late.

Anyone interested in taking part in the consultation can find it on the Cabinet Office website.