How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards I

Regular readers may recall that I was not a little taken aback by an astonishing U-turn performed by the Cabinet Office on the matter of open standards. As I pointed out in a follow-up article, this seemed to bear the hallmarks of a Microsoft intervention, but I didn't have any proof of that.

So, without much hope, I put in a Freedom of Information request through the wonderful WhatDoTheyKnow site (highly recommended), asking for details of all the meetings that Microsoft had had with the Cabinet Office on this subject. To my utter astonishment I was sent a real cornucopia of briefing notes and emails that Microsoft used to lobby against Restriction-Free (RF) open standards and in favour for standards based on FRAND licensing of claimed patents.

Over the next few days I shall be presenting some of the astonishing things that Microsoft has been saying behind closed doors in its attempt to derail truly open standards. These are extremely timely given the current UK government consultation on open standards, which I've already urged you to respond to several times.

First of all, I have to say how impressed I am with the Cabinet Office's response. Aside from redacting a few names from the memos, for entirely understandable reasons to do with preserving private information, the documents are essentially complete. In fact, in the accompanying letter sent to me, the Head of Information and Knowledge Management went so far as to write:

As the the information requested related to third parties, exemptions relating to Section 43(2) - Prejudice of commercial interest were considered for some of the records but a decision has been reached that the public interest favours disclosure of the information.

That's a significant victory for openness: had it been decided that just because it concerned commercial interests the information would have been withheld, then the FOI legislation would have been rendered pretty toothless, and it's great to see the Cabinet Office recognising that fact - kudos to them.

Altogether, there were seven meetings between Microsoft and the Cabinet Office in the period May to December last year, with another three emails/phone calls on top of that. At the heart of all of those was Microsoft's attempt to undermine the original "Procurement Policy Note - Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements. Action Note 3/11", issued on 31 January 2011, which I wrote about shortly after it appeared, noting that it set "a new, rigorous tone for the discussions around open standards and openness,"even though it still had big loopholes - about which more below.

Microsoft's first main attack on this document was sent to the Cabinet Office on 20 May, in a letter that begins:

You kindly invited me to write to you directly setting out Microsoft’s concerns on the emerging new UK policy on open standards, as set out in Procurement Policy Note 3/11 on “Use of Open Standards when specifying ICT requirements”. This letter takes you up on that offer.

As you might expect, Microsoft tries to establish its open standard credentials before attacking RF licensing, but in doing so, its scores an own goal:

We invest significantly in the open standards process, actively participating in many standards bodies where we contribute valuable technologies to implementers on Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory terms (including dozens of contributions on a royalty free basis).

The tenor of the current document - and of Microsoft's whole attack on true open standards - is that RF open standards are somehow unnatural, or unfair on big companies, and yet by its own admission it has contributed technology to open standards on RF terms not once or twice but dozens of times.

So the question has to be: why is it objecting now? Is it just so that it can exclude open source from future UK government tenders? Or could it be simply that it thinks it can bully the UK government in a way that it couldn't bully other organisations? This is certainly something that the Cabinet Office should be exploring with Microsoft when they next meet, since the above statement undercuts the company's position that it can't work with RF open standards.

In a further attempt to downplay RF standards, the letter claims:

one recent study found that a typical laptop contains over 250 technical interoperability standards - with 75% of these being developed under FRAND terms, and only 23% under Royalty Free terms.

But when we look at the study itself, this is what we find:

we created a set of broad categories - display, graphics, sound, storage, BIOS, input device, processor, power, file system, networking, wireless, I/O ports, memory, software, codecs, content protection, security and “other” - and sought relevant standards.

As this makes clear, those "250 technical interoperability standards" were mostly about hardware interoperability. Of the purely software standards a far greater proportion were in fact made available under RF terms. Even more interesting, those RF-licensed standards included many of the absolutely core ones like HTML5, HTTP and HTTPS.

But there's a larger point here. Many hardware standards are indeed FRAND rather than RF, but contrary to Microsoft's assertion in the letter of 20 May, these would not "be excluded by PPN 3/11's definition of Open Standards." And the reason is extremely simple: because that original Open Standards document began by declaring:

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.

It then goes on to emphasise:

Government departments should ensure that they include open standards in their ICT procurement specifications unless there are clear business reasons why this is inappropriate.

That is, there are already two very clear get-out clauses that would permit the use of FRAND standards when there were no RF standards available, or - even more flexibly - if there were "clear business reasons why [the use of RF open standards] is inappropriate".

Nobody is suggesting that GSM phones, say, should be banned from UK government use, as Microsoft's letter seems to insinuate. For a start, these are hardware standards, and not about software interoperability at all; secondly, there are no comparable RF open standards that could be used, and even if there were, there would be clear business reasons why GSM phones should still be purchased. There simply isn't a problem here.

This straw man attack on non-existent difficulties is symptomatic of Microsoft's general assault on the idea of RF open standards, and in subsequent posts I shall be exploring other examples of arguments and techniques that it deployed last year in an attempt to turn the UK government against the idea of producing a level playing field for UK procurement through the introduction of truly open and truly fair open standards.

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards I

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards ii

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards III

How Microsoft Fought True Open Standards IV

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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