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I may unsubscribe at any time. If UK open standards policy — introduced Thursday — will indeed do what the government says it will, it will break the primary means commercial software suppliers use to assert monopoly power over their customers.

Such a move would be a landmark in the history of computing. But the government slipped it out out with muted fanfare last week, and then did its best to avoid answering awkward questions about it. The crucial question is why the policy neglected to address commercial or off-the shelf software COTS producers explicitly, when its extent was otherwise stated clearly for every possible eventuality where pressure or convenience might cause government bodies to ignore the open standards order.

COTS companies Microsoft and Oracle, who dominate UK public IT spend, had opposed the open standards policy so fiercely they caused the government to hold it back for two and a half years.

The policy was about breaking their hold over public sector IT in the first place. Their opposition had nearly succeeded in burying the policy altogether.

Had they been given a get out? Other crucial questions included whether the Cabinet Office has any power to impose the policy without enacting legislation, and whether the intransigence of COTS producers will make them automatically eligible for official exemptions built into the scheme. Computer Weekly has nevertheless learned through unofficial channels that the Cabinet Office is now examining ways to append an official clarification to the policy, to address COTS producers explicitly.

The Cabinet Office might say it applies. But on paper it may not. Some of these may have some influence over government purchase of COTS software.

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  • But the carefully-worded document did not claim explicit power over COTS. It even appeared to exclude it. He said the Cabinet Office might also be unable to enforce the policy unless it enacted it in legislation. It would anyway only apply to central government departments. Most public sector IT spend occurred elsewhere. The policy might not have addressed COTS directly.

    The government said in the backgrounder it had some sympathy for the idea that its policy should apply to COTS as well as bespoke government systems. It did not say it would. Just that an overwhelming majority of people in the public consultation said it should.

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    It included a clause that would require government departments to specify open standards in their procurement frameworks. He believed this was enough. The policy also restated oft-ignored EU procurement regulations that should normally prevent COTS producers being handed undue power in public procurements: All of these conditions — that did not explicitly apply to COTS but did at least imply that they might — would also be subject to exemptions.

    Government departments could opt-out of their implied obligations to apply the policy to COTS when they thought there was no choice but to ignore them. It could be imagined, for example, that a software monopoly that effectively imposed its own proprietary standard as the market standard, might prevent open standards emerging or might simply prove unmovable, or might give cursory support for open standards that would win a contract but prove so unworkable in practice that a revert to its own standard would be inevitable.

    This did not make sense for a policy that had been necessarily pedantic. The government had conducted a two-and-a-half year review to settle a semantic question that had been at the centre of its conflict with COTS suppliers: It left no stone unturned in the specification of requirements it said government government bodies to meet to be compliant with the policy.

    COTS was conspicuous for its absence.

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  • Government bodies would be required to build open standards into their user requirements. They would work as a community on the identification and promotion of compulsory open standards.

    A complex set of requirements would ensure they put enough thought into their choice of standards, so they faced the same sort of economic and systems questions that had led the government to back open standards in the first place. When the government later clarified its position on COTS, it said it was obvious that in respect of all these measures COTS would get the same treatment as bespoke software.

    So it did not need to distinguish between them in the policy, it reckoned. That meant COTS as well as bespoke systems. That implied not COTS. So when it came down to brass tacks, in the face of intransigent and potentially litigious COTS producers and procurement officers given to the path of least resistance, would the open standards policy apply to COTS or not?

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