Open standards: the UK gets it, probably

By Rick Jelliffe
February 26, 2009

I see (hat-tip Open Malaysia) that the UK government Open Source, Open Standards and Re-Use: Government Action Plan has the following:

Action 8: Open Standards: The Government will specify requirements by reference to open standards and require compliance with open standards in solutions where feasible. It will support the use of Open Document Format (ISO/IEC 26300:2006) as well as emerging open versions of previously proprietary standards (eg ISO 19005-1:2005 ("PDF") and ISO/IEC 29500 ("Office Open XML formats"). It will work to ensure that government information is available in open formats, and it will make this a required standard for government websites.

What do I think is notable about that?


  • The pragmatic approach to standards ("where feasible").

  • The strong preference for openness.

  • The specific and unqualified mention of ODF first.

  • The mention of PDF and OOXML in the context of their history (i.e. and their objectives).

  • The nice use of emerging, perhaps subtly indicating both that their value is only as far as they actually are non-proprietary and that standardization is an ongoing process for these kinds of formats.

  • The clear indication that the provenance of a technology does not rule it out of the list of being an acceptable open standard: given my view that all market-dominating interface technologies should be QA-ed, RAND-z standards I think this is really good news

  • The lack of a specific list, indicating that the standards can may to some extent be chosen to fit the specific requirements.

  • The specific mention of the ISO versions of the standards, not the Consortium sources.

  • The specific case of websites in the context of the need for open formats where information is publically available: especially for public websites

What would I have liked to have seen as well?


  • A mention of HTML and websites

  • A mention of the need for profiles for the interoperable subsets of standard formats (see my blog today on MODUS for example)

  • A clearer indication that where there is a choice between open standards, it is acceptable to mandate one but allow (or grudgingly allow) or even disallow other standard formats. Where ODF does the job, and where it imposes some cost on the recipient, and where the sender can be savy enough to send ODF, what is the advantage in allowing OOXML as well as ODF for incoming documents. (For documents being distrubuted, the reverse is true: the more standard formats provided the better coverage.) Just because a technology is an open standard, that does not automatically rule out that it is only appropriate for important niche cases rather than general use: I think people understand this a lot more now than they did a couple of years ago.

  • A clearer mention of the position of national standards on the desirability tree.

In another place, there is also this:

Open Standards (7) The Government will use open standards in its procurement specifications and require solutions to comply with open standards. The Government will support the development of open standards and specifications.

The government support is probably evident in support for BSI and for BSI's support for SC34. But SC34 has primarily a vetting and review function, for these formats: this is indeed critical but too late in the picture for many fundamental changes. Governments also need to directly sponsor participants to OASIS, W3C and the other consortia which originate the these standards. And they need to do so with people who can formulate and push through national requirements, not merely take sides with one set of vendors or another. (I think South Africa's Bob Jolliffe is a real role model here, in his work at the OASIS ODF TC and observing SC34, even though we probably disagree on many specifics.)


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