Beyond Open Standards and Open Access

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the huge win for open standards - and thus, by implication open source - in the realm of document formats in the UK. There's an interesting Cabinet Office document from 25 March that is the record of the...


A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the huge win for open standards – and thus, by implication open source – in the realm of document formats in the UK. There’s an interesting Cabinet Office document from 25 March that is the record of the meeting where the final decision to go with PDF, HTML5 and ODF was taken. It’s well-worth reading for the insights that it provides into the thinking behind the move, and for some important points it raises, not least the issue I mentioned – interoperability:

A concern about ODF was raised in respect of the likely result of multiple formats and impacts on interoperability. Examples of existing tools were raised that implement ODF 1.2, although the Board suggested that care would need to be taken to avoid adopting a different type of monoculture. The Board also recognised that standards-based document interoperability requires more work in terms of guidance than a monoculture requires.

That point about more work being required for an open ecosystem than for a monoculture is noteworthy: it means that companies, for example, need to recognise that the benefits of open standards and interoperability do come with a cost, albeit one that is not primarily financial, but more to do with management and culture.

Here’s a nice bit of wisdom that should ease the problem of interoperability:

The Board discussed the impact of tools and readability, suggesting that Postel’s Law (Be liberal in what you accept, and conservative in what you send) should be government’s approach. This means that government should be strict about the format of documents it creates, whilst being able to accept documents from citizens and businesses in other formats.

Interoperability was raised again in another section:

Concern was expressed about the potential underspecification of ODF and also whether the issue of patents was fully resolved. Fonts were discussed and the potential impacts of these upon interoperability and use across platforms. The need for validators was discussed and whether existing validators provide what departments would need. The use of extensions and their impact was discussed. Additional advice was requested on extensions.

The importance of validators goes back to my call for the free software community to support the Cabinet Office move. If work needs doing here in order to improve tools for checking ODF compliance, then it would really useful if the open source world helped that to happen, and sooner rather than later.

The issue of patents rather hinges on the new Unitary Patent and the Unified Patent Court, both of which I expect to be bad news for free software. There’s not much we can do about it until we know exactly what the problems are, and even then it’s not clear how much we can change things.

The point about fonts is a good one, and something that several people have mentioned to me after I published my article on the ODF decision. The issue is that it is all very well setting ODF as the standard for exchanging documents, but if everyone is using different sets of fonts, there could be interoperability problems. So we need to draw up some basic list of such fonts, and make them part of the new government standard.

According to Peter Murray-Rust, one of the doughtiest champions of all things open in the world of science, this question of fonts is particularly problematic for academics. And that brings me neatly on to an idea that has occurred to me recently.

I’ve written a number of times here on Open Enterprise about the rise of open access, yet another flowering of the ideas behind open source in a completely different domain – in this case, academic publishing. Like open source, open access is definitely winning, even if there is some desperate rearguard action by the publishers, who are trying to protect their astonishing profit margins – typically 30-40%. That means we have the luxury of being able to think about what we should push for next.

The recent acceptance by the UK government that ODF should be the default for document exchange prompted me to think about all those manuscripts that are submitted by academics to be published in journals: why not use ODF for those too? By that, I don’t mean forcing all academics to use ODF if they don’t want to, but rather to stipulate that any academic funded by the UK taxpayer must be able to submit papers in ODF format. That is, publishers will be obliged to support ODF alongside any other formats that they might choose to use.

Doing so would both offer greater flexibility for academics, who currently may be put off using ODF because they need to convert the document for submission to journals. It would spread ODF use into publishers, which might then start accepting it for other parts of their business. And it would help to raise the profile of ODF among yet more people. All of those will be good for ODF, open standards, and open source.

That then raises the question: where else might we require the ability to use ODF – either as the only option, as for the UK government, or at least as one of the options? The key criteria is that the activity is funded to a significant extent by the taxpayer, which means that it is reasonable to ask for a quid pro quo. For example, perhaps sports and arts organisations could be asked to provide this option when making submissions to the UK government, or providing materials to the public. Maybe you can think of others – I’d be interested reading your suggestions in the comments.

Another way of looking at this is that the Cabinet Office’s espousal of ODF as a document interchange format opens the door for similar initiatives elsewhere. It’s why getting governments to back open standards and open source is so important: once they do, we can start to use that fact to spread the message to other people. Equally, if it doesn’t happen – as was the case for so many years in the UK, and is still the case in many other countries – it makes it much harder to convince businesses and organisations that they should take the plunge.

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