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Archive for March 7th, 2011

UK Government Survey on Open Standards: But What is an ‘Open Standard’?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 7 March 2011

UK Government’s Open Standards Survey

I was alerted to the UK Government’s Open Standards Survey by Adam Cooper of JISC CETIS, who has already encouraged readers of his blog to participate in the survey. I’ve skimmed through the questions but haven’t yet completed the survey. What stuck me, though, was the draft definition of the term “open standard” as proposed by the UK Government.

Respondents are invited to give comments to the following five conditions:

  1. Open standards are standards which result from and are maintained through an open, independent process
  2. Open standards are standards which are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent. (N.B. The specification/standardisation must be compliant with Regulation 9 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. This regulation makes it clear that technical specifications/standards cannot simply be national standards but must also include/recognise European standards)
  3. Open standards are standards which are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost
  4. Open standards are standards which have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis
  5. Open standards are standards which as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms

I think the survey was wise to begin by being honest about the difficulties in defining an ‘open standard’ and inviting feedback on its proposed set of conditions. The survey follows on from work which has been carried out by UKOLN, JISC CETIS and JISC OSS Watch with our shared interests in helping the sector to exploit the potential of open standards. I thought it would be useful to revisit our work before I completed the survey.

Previous Work in Describing an ‘Open Standard’

The term “open standard” is somewhat ambiguous and open to different interpretations. In a paper entitled “Openness in Higher Education: Open Source, Open Standards, Open Access” (available in PDF, MS Word and HTML formats) Scott Wilson (CETIS), Randy Metcalfe (at the time at JISC OSS Watch) and myself pointed out that:

There are many complex issues involved when selecting and encouraging use of open standards. Firstly there are disagreements over the definition of open standards. For example Java, Flash and PDF are considered by some to be open standards, although they are, in fact, owned by Sun, Macromedia and Adobe, respectively, who, despite documenting the formats and perhaps having open processes for the evolution of the formats, still have the rights to change the licence conditions governing their use (perhaps due to changes in the business environment, company takeovers, etc.)

It should be added that this paper was written in 2007. Since then PDF has become an ISO standard so we could add the fact that proprietary formats can become standardised to the complexities.

In a UKOLN QA Focus briefing paper we tried to describe characteristics shared by open standards, which had similarities to the approaches proposed in the UK Government survey:

  • An open standards-making process
  • Documentation freely available on the Web
  • Use of the standard is uninhibited by licencing or patenting issues
  • Standard ratified by recognised standards body

It should be noted that we described these as ‘characteristics‘ of an open standard rather than mandatory requirements since we were aware that the second point, for example, would rule out standards produced by many standardisation bodies such as BSI and ISO.

Responding to the Survey

I’d like to share my thoughts prior to completing the survey.

  1. Open standards are standards which result from and are maintained through an open, independent process
  2. I would support this condition. It should be noted that this means that a standard which is owned by a vendor cannot be regarded as an open standard even if the standard is published. This means, for example that Microsoft’s RTF format is not an open standard and PDF was not an open standard until ownership was transferred to ISO in 2008. It should be noted that I believe that the US definition of ‘open standards’ does not include such a clause (there were disagreements on this blog over the status of PDF before it became an ISO standard).

  3. Open standards are standards which are approved by a recognised specification or standardisation organisation, for example W3C or ISO or equivalent. (N.B. The specification/standardisation must be compliant with Regulation 9 of the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. This regulation makes it clear that technical specifications/standards cannot simply be national standards but must also include/recognise European standard).
  4. I used to have this view. However I can recall an email discussion with Paul Miller and Andy Powell when they worked at UKOLN who argued (and convinced me) that this was an over-simplistic binary division of the world of standards. It should be noted that RSS (in any of its flavours) would not satisfy this condition. The question, then, is whether this is a concern? If the definition of an ‘open standard’ will be used to determine whether a standard should be used by the UK Government then there will be a need to avoid being too rigourous in the definition. My view would be to rule out this condition.

  5. Open standards are standards which are thoroughly documented and publicly available at zero or low cost
  6. I would agree on the importance for rigourous documentation for open standards, so that ambiguities and inconsistencies are avoided. This clause is, however, ambiguous itself – what is ‘low cost’ documentation? However I would be happy to see this condition included.

  7. Open standards are standards which have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis
  8. This is desirable, but what happens if it is not possible to negotiate royalty-free licences? This is particularly true for video formats. If the government uses this as a mandatory condition for open standards and subsequently requires services to make use of open standards might this result in a poorer quality environment for the end user? From an ideological position I would like to support this condition but in reality I feel that there needs to be more flexibility – there is a danger that if open standards are mandated this could mean that Government departments would be barred from making use of popular services – such as YouTube and iTunes – which many people fund helpful in gaining simple access to information of interest. I am therefore rather uncertain as to whether this should be a required condition for the definition of an open standard. It is worth noting, incidentally, that the W3C have similarly avoided grasping this particular nettle in the HTML5 standardisation work, with no specific video codex being mandated as part of the standard.

  9. Open standards are standards which as a whole can be implemented and shared under different development approaches and on a number of platforms
  10. This has always been a view I have held.

The contentious issues seems to be “Open standards are standards which have intellectual property made irrevocably available on a royalty free basis“. I suspect people will argue strongly that this condition is essential. For me, though, we are revisiting Martin Weller’s “Cato versus Cicero” argument. Should we be taking a hardline stance in order to achieve a desired goal or do we need to make compromises in order to accommodate complexities and the conflicting needs of various stakeholders?

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