150 Years on from the Civil War – Taking standards to the next level

OK, OK, I’ll admit the headline is stretching a point and a desperate bid for eyeballs on the 150th Anniversary of the opening shots on Fort Sumter

I ask only that you bear with me and keep in mind that the Civil War was fought at least in part about the powers of individual states compared with a ‘greater’, federal authority – and that point is important.

I was a little disturbed to read the somewhat gleefully written piece by Andy Updegrove about the British Government’s recent advisory note on the use of standards in public procurement. Aside from the slant given on the actual facts, it read as tantamount to a call to arms to EU nation states to cede from the impositions of the ‘federal troops’ of the European Commission in Brussels on matters of standards policy.

(Update 14-04-2011: A detailed and elegant rebuttal of Updegrove’s article has been published by Mondaq apparently following an outcry about the imbalance over the original piece)

The European Commission updated in December last its guidelines on standards in the new version of the so-called “European Interoperability Framework”. This bold step forward was widely welcomed as both pragmatic (the ‘law of unforeseen consequences’ had hurt the Commission with the first version of this work, as many open and legitimate standards organisations – including OASIS, the W3C and the European standards organisations themselves – risked falling outside of a very narrow and poorly scoped definition of ‘open’) and aimed at taking standards to the next level – beyond the important but down in the entrails stuff of data interoperability standards and to the ‘higher ground’ of semantic, organisational and legal interoperability.

I have been concerned for many years about how standards are used as a central element to public sector ICT policy and specifically how they help deliver better, citizen and business focussed solutions and services.

Our priority, as thought leaders in the standards community should be to identify a value chain for the delivery of services and provide tractable frameworks for policy makers, senior analysts, and business leaders to achieve that for the next generation of services.

But to take that step requires some maturity and willingness to avoid the rat holes that still dominate – or at the very least overshadow – many discussions around ‘open standards’.

Let me be clear – this is not a call to abandon the ‘moral high ground’ of wanting to see open standards developed, defined, promoted and used. There will always be those who will argue that they are special, are innovative, or so unique as to be beyond the perview of these considerations (Apple, Google, Facebook – are you listening? You and others are great innovators but not such good team players when it comes to discussing and agreeing common, open, solutions to important standardization issues), so everyone in the standards world needs to remain vigilant.

But to be equally clear – sterile turf-wars about who is more open than whom; attempts to claim one definition of ‘open’ as the definition and then denounce anyone else with an alternative take as “having an agenda” – all this simply underlines the fact that those who shout loudest have a clear agenda – and it often isn’t pretty and rarely has anything to do with moving forward with the adoption of open standards.

[For what it’s worth – and some of the more belligerent stakeholders in this domain always want to pin others down (whilst themselves conveniently sidestepping similar requests) – I will state my position clearly. I actively support ‘open standards’ as defined and used by one of the key global open standards consortia, OASIS – on whose Board of Directors I sit as a member elected by the OASIS membership. What I particularly like about OASIS is that its standards development process is so open – one of my key criteria for judging the openness of a standard is assessing who is involved, what the membership structure is, who can participate and at what cost, how a proposal gets started, advanced and adopted, and – importantly – what intellectual property rules apply. Yes, you read that right – open standards can and do contain intellectual property, which is licensed for use by anyone implementing the standard according to the rules in play. Take the popularly cited Open Document Format, developed as an OASIS Standard – to claim that it should be considered as the document format of preference because it ‘has no IP’ and it thus ‘truly open’ is not only untrue (see the IPR statement from SUN Microsystems, don’t take my word for it), it is a red herring. No open standards body defines open standards as solely being ‘IP free’ – even if many, including OASIS, have that as an optional path taken for the development of some of their standards work. What is important is to strike a balance between solving real world problems with innovation and conforming to open standards. Some put a premium on pure innovation and standards are only used or developed if they help the bottom line; others put a premium on being totally ‘open’ (often, unfortunately, with more than a whiff of smug superiority!) whilst totally failing to innovate (I have to agree with Jason Lanier who notes that “Linux is a superbly polished copy of an antique – shinier than the original, perhaps, but still defined by it.“….But I digress – and that’s the danger in this debate…]

As discussions about standards start to look higher up the stack of service provision – not just data standards concerned with the interoperability of bits and bytes between arbitrary and heterogeneous systems but the way that government agencies define key principles, performance indicators, delivery mechanisms and measure value for their customers – they need to focus minds on the best ways to achieve these objectives through greater use of standards and not be side-tracked by the sterile debates of the previous decade.

The danger, as the European Union is about to debate the future of the European standardisation system, is that heavy lobbying will not only turn the clock back and have EU member states secede from a forward-looking approach to standards and interoperability that is so desperately needed to face the challenges of the next decade at a European level – cross-border services, procurement and invoicing to name but a few – but also see a perfectly valid and workable definition of ‘open standards’ reduced to meaninglessness – with all the consequences that flow from that.

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