Blog post

The Unbearable Narrowness of the Open Source Crowd

By Andrea Di Maio | January 21, 2011 | 5 Comments

open source in government

A few days ago I posted about the Common Operating Environment policy published by the Australian Federal Government to reduce complexity and diversity of their desktop infrastructure, and the limited success they had in gathering online comments about the draft strategy back in July 2010.

It appears that reactions to the now final policy have been quite vocal, and the Australian government has decided to reopen the discussion on the AGIMO blog.

What I find interesting is how most of the discussion on a document that looks at several aspects of the common environment focuses on the decision of selecting OOXML as the preferred standard for productivity applications. AGIMO’s blog post is almost entirely about this, in an attempt at further justifying the choice and defending against criticism.

I do not have any insider information, but from what the post says, it looks like the Australian government did its homework before taking that decision. It is a decision driven by the desire to minimize risks. As the post says

Other formats were considered, but after careful consideration and discussion with the agencies it was agreed that many existing documents would not be properly converted by these other formats.

My point here is not to defend or criticize their choice.But once again the criticism of those who (rightly) support open standards focuses too narrowly on the usual turf war between competing standards (ODF and OOXML in this case).

I still remember that almost four years ago Gartner Consulting was tasked to write a report about the revision of the first version of the European Interoperability Framework. The report, which was led by my consulting colleague Michiel Maloteux and his team, received many comments, most of which focused on a rather minor sentence in an 80+ pages document that was proposing an innovative enterprise architecture approach (and most of which has positively informed future work). The sentence was:

Gartner acknowledges the importance of open standards. IT vendors and system integrators should also recognize that open standards are the way to go. The era where proprietary standards lead to a sure base of loyal customers is fading away. IT is becoming just like any other industry where true added value and competitive pricing determine the winners.
Yet, Gartner recommends not to focus on the use of open standards per se. Whether open or not, standards are to further the deployment of public services. EIF v2.0 should facilitate the most profitable business model(s) of cost versus public value, under proper recognition of intellectual property rights, if any. The support for multiple standards allows a migration towards open standards when appropriate in the long run

At the time this was no doubt controversial. Microsoft was in the middle of leading a standardization effort for OOXML and ODF was about to become an ISO standard. No wonder we took some of the heat – including myself, who had not been involved in drafting the report (Gartner Research and Gartner Consulting are two separate organizations, although both part of Gartner).

Without taking any side, what I am surprised with is how in both cases the debate focuses on a single aspects of what the policy (or the framework document) are about. This is quite typical of open standard and open source supporters, and I do see some of the same traits – although not so extreme – among open government data supporters.

I do appreciate that fighting a battle against incumbents – be they large corporations or legacy processes – takes focus and dedication. But in order to win the battles that really matter, people should never lose sight of the context in which the debate is taking place and what the overall objective is.


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  • Rebentisch says:

    The severe problem of the Gartner report on the EIF2 was that Gartner wrote a sales driven strategy for a procurement agency. That was disloyal to the agency that funded your research. As of “open standards” is is pretty irrational for a public agency that comes from a procurement perspective to voluntarily accept a worse deal or take sides of a vendor. Gartner’s language compromised and watered down the clear negotiation position of the public institution, at the additional damage of European market players interested in access to market. In terms of “cui bono?” the answer was: “not your client” from the public sector, quite the opposite. Gartner undermined their position in interoperability negotiations, you didn’t accept them as their masters.

    As of OOXML I see no reason why a public agency should not use its available procurement power to pressure for ODF adoption in order to improve their interoperability position or why they should accept OOXMl without any concessions. As of the main point of difference between OOXML and ODF please note that the EIF2 controversy is out of the scope here. Both formats were supposed to be RF.

  • John Smither says:

    Quote: “Other formats were considered, but after careful consideration and discussion with the agencies it was agreed that many existing documents would not be properly converted by these other formats.”

    This sentence is a bit odd, because documents are not “converted” by formats; they are “represented” by formats. Software does the converting. Possibly what is meant here is that some documents would not be faithfully represented in other formats. If so, I ask: isn’t that the eternal strategy of the lock-in vendors? Continue to offer wrinkle upon wrinkle of representation in order to make sure that this statement continues to be true. They call it “innovation”, but everyone in the industry knows it is low-value proliferation of non-standards in order to make it impossible to standardize.

  • John Smither says:

    “EIF v2.0 should facilitate the most profitable business model(s) of cost versus public value… . The support for multiple standards allows a migration towards open standards when appropriate in the long run.”

    This is a very polished namby-pamby statement. By suggesting (without providing any details to refute) that the best cost/benefit model might be to continue to do nothing, it is trying to open political cover for inaction. Not good enough. If the recommended policy has no concrete strategy for making the shift to an open standard really actually happen in limited time, it is not complete and therefore of no service. Instead it is just promulgating wait-and-see status quo… just what the lock-in artists want.

  • @John @Rebentisch – I knew I would reopen the discussion but I think it is worthwhile to clarify a couple of things. I am personally very favorable to open standards, and so is Gartner. As a matter of principle, open standards should be applied wherever possible. The difference in my position and possibly in the Australian position is in the “wherever”. The real issue is about “value for money”. What is the total cost of ownership of using a certain format rather than another one? It includes migration costs, exist costs, license costs, procurement costs and so forth. Like most of the enlightened open source strategies claim today, open source should be considered but also compared in a value-for-money fashion to proprietary ones. The same should apply when selecting one among various formats or standards. The sort of reactions that I have seen to by post (not yours, but you can find them in the comment list) is what led me to pick this particular title for my post.

  • Rebentisch says:

    You are well aware that the matter of definition and what to do then, are distinct. What Gartner proposed was a lesser \gold standard\. Whether you are pro or anti gold becomes less relevant when you bear Fool’s Gold.

    As of source code disclosure that is probably less necessary as long as interfaces are kept open and accessible to all.

    As of the TCO argument the question remains if you serve your client to reduce its (total) procurement costs and gain power or provide him with bogus arguments to accept an unfavourable deal, not to pursue its interests, and lure into dependency. That seemed to be the case with Gartner, a negotiation strategy for fools, a fools’ gold standard that would make your client yield its power and satisfy the vendor.