UK governments must comply with open standards

The new policy is a major step forward for competition and innovation in the UK software market, the FSFE said

All governmental bodies in the U.K. must now comply with open standards to prevent vendor lock-in and stimulate interoperability of government IT, the Minister for Cabinet Office announced on Thursday.

Compliance with the Open Standards Principles will make U.K. government IT more open, less expensive and better connected, the Cabinet Office said.

"The publication of the Open Standards Principles is a fundamental step towards achieving a level playing field for open source and proprietary software and breaking our IT into smaller, more manageable components," wrote Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General in his foreword to the Open Standards Principles document.

The new policy does not cover open-source software, which is part of a different policy document.

"This is a major step forward," said the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) of the Open Standards Principles.

The new rules cover open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats, and should enable software to interoperate through open protocols.

A product choice made by a government must not force users, delivery partners or government bodies to buy the same product, according to the principles. Web-based applications should work equally well with a range of standards-compliant browsers irrespective of the OS, and products should not be tied to a single browser or desktop software.

The open standards policy must also ensure that suppliers can compete on a fair basis. By doing this, the U.K wants to remove competition barriers such as vendor lock-in, it said.

Open standards for software interoperability data and document formats may be implemented for both open source and proprietary software, according to the document. This environment should be "agnostic and plural" with regard to technology, suppliers and commercial arrangements, and also break down large IT contracts into smaller ones.

Furthermore, the implementation of open standards should be flexible and transparent, giving services the freedom to evolve according to changing user needs, expectations and technology innovation, the government said. Government bodies for instance should expose APIs (application programming interfaces) for its services "to enable value-added services to be built on government information and data."

Pan-governmental standards for government IT will be published on a Standards Hub website where adopted standards can be found. At the moment, the hub is in the early stages of development and as of Thursday did not show any standards.

"As it stands, it is a very strong document," said Karsten Gerloff, president of the FSFE, who said the interesting aspect of the policy was to see how the U.K. defined open standards.

Key is that patents that are essential to implement the standard must be licensed without royalties or restrictions that would prevent their implementation in free and open software in the new policy, Gerloff said.

"This is something that FSFE has been pushing for for years, because it's the only way to let everyone in the software market compete on equal terms," Gerloff said, adding that without this definition the document would not have been worth much.

It is a "major step forward for competition and innovation in the U.K. software market", he said. Small and midsize enterprises should particularly benefit from the new policy. In the past, only 6.5 percent of government IT spending went to such businesses and that should change due to the new policy, he added.

Another key point is that if a U.K. governmental body buys software they have to include in the price a calculation of what it will cost them to stop using that software in the future, Gerloff said. "It means that you can't just buy a proprietary solution and then say 'we can't move to free software because we're locked in, and it's too expensive to convert all those files.'"

"Like public bodies everywhere else, the U.K. government is sitting on millions and millions of files in proprietary formats," Gerloff said, adding that governments should stop digging themselves into a deeper vendor lock-in hole. "This is what the government has done, and we commend them on their courage in this point."

Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to loek_essers@idg.com

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