Finally: UK Open Standards are RF, not FRAND

In a huge win for open standards, open source and the public, the long-awaited UK government definition of open standards has come down firmly on the side of RF, not FRAND. The UK government's approach is enshrined in an important new document defining what it calls Open Standards Principles. Annex 1 provides definitions and a glossary, including the following crucial definition of what is required for a standard to be considered open:

rights essential to implementation of the standard, and for interfacing with other implementations which have adopted that same standard, are licensed on a royalty free basis that is compatible with both open source and proprietary licensed solutions. These rights should be irrevocable unless there is a breach of licence conditions.

The Principles are not just about central government, which means their impact is likely to be extremely wide:

whilst this policy focusses on central government, we shall work to promote the open standards principles for software interoperability, data and document formats with all public bodies in the UK. Local government, the wider public sector and the Devolved Administrations are encouraged to adopt the principles to deliver wider benefits.

The seven Open Standards Principles are as follows:

1. We place the needs of our users at the heart of our standards choices

2. Our selected open standards will enable suppliers to compete on a level playing field

3. Our standards choices support flexibility and change

4. We adopt open standards that support sustainable cost

5. Our decisions on standards selection are well informed

6. We select open standards using fair and transparent processes

7. We are fair and transparent in the specification and implementation of open standards

Here are some of the key features of each.

1. We place the needs of our users at the heart of our standards choices

The product choice made by a government body must not force other users, delivery partners or government bodies, to buy the same product e.g. web-based applications must work equally well with a range of standards-compliant browsers, irrespective of operating system, and not tie the user to a single browser or desktop solution.

Of course, this has been the big problem in government procurement for open source solutions for years.

2. Our selected open standards will enable suppliers to compete on a level playing field

Whether they are designed and built in-house or outsourced, government bodies must require solutions that comply with open standards, for softwar einteroperability, data and document formats, where they exist and meet functional needs, unless there is a robust and transparent reason why this is inappropriate.

Frameworks for government IT procurements, where applicable, must specify that open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats should be implemented, subject to the principle of equivalence, unless there is a clear business need why an open standard is inappropriate and an exemption has been agreed.

What that means is that if there are no solutions that support open standards, then it is of course perfectly permissible to use non-open standards: this addresses the criticism that unencumbered open standards don't exist for every field. But it rightly emphasises is that truly open standards are to be preferred when they exist.

3. Our standards choices support flexibility and change

Smaller, component-based IT projects provide a flexible design to allow choice and enable an evolution of the Government's IT estate, rather than costly big bang changes. This reduces the risk of lock-in to suppliers, software, service and support, or to old and inefficient IT.

This is one of open source's great strengths, since modularity is why open source is possible and works so well.

4. We adopt open standards that support sustainable cost

Total cost of ownership calculations for software often consider the exit and migration costs as part of the cost of the new solution, when in fact this may in part represent the hidden cost of lock-in to an existing solution.

As part of examining the total cost of ownership of a government IT solution, the costs of exit for a component should be estimated at the start of implementation. As unlocking costs are identified, these must be associated with the incumbent supplier/system and not be associated with cost of new IT projects.

In preparation for any technical refresh projects, or in exceptional circumstances, where extensions to IT contracts or to legacy solutions have been agreed, government bodies must formulate a pragmatic exit management strategy. These must describe publicly the existing standards used together with the transition to open standards and compulsory open standards.

Taken together, these are little short of revolutionary. Hitherto, the cost of migrating to a new platform has typically included costs that properly should be associated with the lock-in to the old platform. The recognition here that those costs must be distributed appropriately in order to allow like-for-like comparisons, is a huge step forward, since it will allow open source options to be considered on a fair basis.

5. Our decisions on standards selection are well informed

The selection criteria for compulsory open standards in government IT must consider security and legal requirements; user and operational needs; context; economic efficiency; interoperability; market support; potential for lock-in; the criteria for open standards and maturity. Only open standards that are considered to be mature should be considered for compulsory adoption.

Again, these are reasonable: mandating open standards won't work if they aren't appropriate.

6. We select open standards using fair and transparent processes

Transparent engagement and selection processes for standards for use in government IT opens the door to a vast wealth of implementation and user-based knowledge that helps the Government to reach the right decision.

That represents a welcome opening up of the process as well as the standards: lack of information has been another major obstacle to changing the way the UK government procures software.

7. We are fair and transparent in the specification and implementation of open standards

Government bodies must provide publicly available information on their alignment with compulsory open standards for software interoperability, data and document formats. Implementation plans for transition to the open standards or open standard profiles, within a specific timeline, must be published.

All agreed exemptions to the open standards policy must be published, detailing the standards specified and the reasons for exemption, unless there are national security considerations which prevent this.

Transparency is of the utmost importance. If government departments aren't required to disclose their compliance with the new Open Standards Principles, and whether they are claiming an exemption for some reason, it will be far easier to circumvent the new policy. By insisting that everything is done out in the open, it is possible to check that any such exemptions are indeed justified.

Transparency is crucial for another reason. As readers may recall from the many Open Enterprise blog posts over the last year describing the extremely long process that has led to the framing of this new policy, companies like Microsoft have fought very hard to prevent RF being enshrined in the new rules. They and their proxies will be looking for any opportunity to challenge the new rules – not least in the courts.

However, I think opponents of the Open Standards Principles will need to think carefully before taking that course. The Cabinet Office has been scrupulous in giving them a chance to make their case, along with everyone else. The original definition of open standards was withdrawn as a result of pressure being applied, and not one, but two consultations have been carried about to solicit views in this area. Indeed, the UK government has made what are probably unprecedented efforts to hear all sides of the argument.

That's evident in the home page listing the Open Standards Consultation documents. There you will find not only Principles themselves, but a host of ancillary information. These include the Government's Response, which explains the process that led to them, including consolidated statistics, a more detailed analysis of every question, and an independent review of the evidence by the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM) at Bournemouth University, which is essentially the report that I wrote about back in September.

This extraordinary level of detail in terms of the consultations and their analysis is a clear sign that the Cabinet Office means business here, and that it is prepared to defend its work in the courts if necessary. The time and money that it has invested in this project over the last few years is also a token of its seriousness and desire to make open standards a reality in this country, and to establish a level playing field for government computing.

Assuming that happens – and based on the new Principles, the signs it will are good – that would represent the start of a new era for IT procurement in the UK. The Cabinet Office team deserves kudos for at least giving us that possibility.

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