The ability to freely connect and communicate through information technology is an indispensable tool for individuals, public administrations, non-governmental organisations and enterprises around the world. This connectivity relies upon seamless interoperability among disparate information technology systems. Interoperability means a computer program can communicate and exchange information with other computer programs and that both programs can use that information. Widespread interoperability across varying systems can only be achieved through reliance upon standard technology interfaces that establish clear rules for communicating. While some of these technology standards are ‘open,’ others are ‘restricted’ or ‘closed,’ meaning they don’t achieve the highest possible level of interoperability. A very different environment for consumers and businesses results from these different standardization models.

  • With open standards, any vendor of communications equipment or services can implement all standards necessary to interoperate with other vendors. In turn, consumers of these products can choose the product that meets their needs and switch at will without fear of losing functionality or control of their data.
  • In the closed proprietary world, there are restrictions on which vendors can implement the standard, which in turn impacts consumer choice and market competition. These restrictions can be a lack of access to a democratic standardization process, onerous licensing terms, or proprietary technical “hooks.”
  • ECIS member experience has shown that an open world is a world of constant innovation, equal commercial opportunity and wide consumer choice. Our experience has also revealed that a proprietary world takes innovation hostage, restricts commercial opportunity and eliminates consumer choice.

ISO Open Document Format versus Microsoft’s Office Open XML

While the best example of a communications system based on open standards is the Internet, perhaps the best counter-example lies in the proprietary world of the desktop computing environment, which is dominated by Microsoft’s closed operating system (Windows). In an attempt to introduce widespread interoperability, competition, and consumer choice to this application area, major industry players have created a truly open standard for office productivity applications, called the Open Document Format (ODF). The standard was initially created through the OASIS standards organization, and in May 2006, ODF was formally recognized as an international standard by the International Standards Organisation (ISO).

However, Microsoft is seeking to displace the interoperability benefits of ODF with its new Vista and Microsoft Office products. Their action reinforces their monopoly position: as opposed to the the ODF file format , which operates on multiple vendor platforms, Microsoft’s competing Office Open XML (OOXML) only runs seamlessly on the Microsoft Office platform.

It is important to note that a ‘de facto’ standard is not necessarily an open standard. By definition an open standard has the following essential characteristics:

  • Its development and management process must be collaborative and democratic.
  • Transparent evolution and management process open to all interested parties.
  • Approved through due process by consensus among participants.
  • Faithful implementations of the standard must interoperate.
  • Platform-independent, vendor-neutral, and usable by an unrestricted number of competing implementations.
  • Openly published including specifications and documentation.
  • Available royalty-free or at minimal cost, with the only licensing restrictions being reciprocity and defensive suspension.

What can consumers – particularly in the public sector – do to ensure interoperability through open standards?

  • Feed their requirements into the standards-setting process.
  • Purchase open standard compliant products whenever available.
  • Demand that all publicly funded technology services, such as e-government services, be based upon open standards.
  • Guard against the encroachment of closed standards into areas now open, such as the Internet itself.

ECIS is preparing a more detailed position on the risks of OOXML and advantages of ODF that will be available on this website soon.