Software industry reclaims open standards debate ?(Java Training Courses)

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Deputy government CIO Liam Maxwell had the night before extended the consultation for a month after discovering Microsoft, lead opponent of the UK’s open standards policy, had been paying an independent Cabinet Office facilitator to help formulate its case. Government supporters had till then shown a lacklustre response to the consultation, while the policy, and open standards, had looked lost for the UK.

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By Friday lunchtime the tables had turned.

Linda Humphries, Cabinet Office official, told a meeting of around 30 mostly software experts that the fields from which the government’s opponents had been drawing their evidence was out of bounds for the consultation.

“The consultation is focusing on open standards in specifications for software interoperability, data and document formats,” she said, with Maxwell looking on.

“It doesn’t go into hardware, telecoms or software IP. There are some people concerned we are trying to run away with [their] IP. That’s not the point at all. What we are talking about is standards,” she said.

The meeting nevertheless dwelt for a significant time on just those things as the software industry staked its territory in what seemed like a pivotal moment for both it and the coalition government’s ICT strategy.

Empty lobby

Microsoft’s opposition to UK policy had been predicated on standards derived from hardware and telecoms. Representatives of those industries had dominated the last and now discredited consultation meeting. On Friday they were vastly outnumbered.

Steve Mustkoski, the Microsoft worldwide policy director who had led the vendor’s lobbying effort in London, was registered but did not appear. Likewise his colleague, OASIS director Peter Brown. Andrew Hopkirk, the Microsoft consultant whose conflict of interest had been the cause of this sudden change in fortunes, did take his place at the table, even as stories about him broke in the trade press. He introduced himself as an independent advising Microsoft on the consultation and otherwise remained silent.

The meeting heard instead, for two hours, a relentless case for open standards. A handful of telecoms experts tried to sustain their industry’s case for patents in software standards. But their arguments did not stand to scrutiny nor the onslaught of statements made by software heavyweights mustered by the open source software industry, who included a Queen’s Counsel and a former counsel for the US government.

Iain Mitchell QC, representing Open Forum Europe, an open source campaign group collaborating with government, gave two examples of situations the government’s open standards policy sought to debar: democratic lock-out and commercial lock-in, created in both cases by proprietary software.

Iain Mitchell QC.png

Slovakian tax payers had been ordered to file their returns online using a system that would only work for people who used Microsoft software, said Mitchell. While an unnamed public authority in Scotland might become a test case for European law over its inability to choose any system for a £25m procurement but the one designed by a prior software supplier.

Open lobby

There was no debate on these points, though Humphries had said they were what the government’s policy was all about – that and creating a level playing field for open source software, an election commitment to which the government intended to stick.

John Newton, chairman and chief technology officer of Alfresco Software, one of the larger open source suppliers, illustrated the Cabinet Office case for a level playing field.

Alfresco had sought to make its content management system interoperate with Microsoft’s “monopoly” Office software but was scared off by it’s patent-encumbered FRAND licence terms. Their assurances were both too complex and too vague to give an open source supplier enough legal certainty to take them up.

It would “completely screw up” Alfresco’s open source business model, he said.

FRAND – the patent-bearing, ‘fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory’ licence terms at the heart of Microsoft’s case against UK policy – was about the only matter over which the room heard any disagreement.

Keith Mallinson, a telecoms consultant, said the majority of the world’s standards exacted royalty payments under FRAND terms. Mallinson believed UK policy excluded FRAND. It was therefore to be assumed it would exclude just about any standard you cared to mention, and to be deduced that it was hair-brained.

Keith Mallinson – WiseHarbor.jpgExcept that the British Standards Organisation had told Computer Weekly the vast majority of standards it and the International Standards Organisation authorised did not exact royalties at all.

Royalty-free

Andrew Watson, technology director of the Object Management Group, a software engineering standards body, had attended the meeting to make exactly that point.

“We have a policy that in theory allows either free licences or reasonable and non-discriminatory licences,” he said.

“In practice, in almost 20 years we have almost never published a specification that requires any money to be paid for a licence.

“We maintain about 177 specifications. One of them is encumbered by two patents. The holders agreed to licence them royalty freeComputer Technology Articles,” he added.

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