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Clear Open Standards Or Ambiguity in Massachusetts?

Policy Set in the Commonwealth

  • January 29, 2004
  • By Rob Reilly

Rhetoric warmed up earlier this month as the Massachusetts Information Technology Division finalized their new open standards policy, outlining acquisition guidelines for the future.

The original draft policies have been broken up into three related documents in an effort to clarify definitions, roles and responsibilities regarding new information technology systems acquisitions.

What is left at the end of the day may be more ambiguity than answers, if the concerns of a proprietary software lobbyist group have merit.

Secretary of the Massachusetts Department of Administration and Finance Eric Kriss has been one of the main architects of the new policies. Kriss told LinuxPlanet that he was "Taking steps prudently," supporting his prior objective of supporting the Commonwealth and giving the vendor community fair and open opportunity to compete for contracts.

When asked about how the new policies would affect the day-to-day operations of his departments, he commented that "the main impact will not be on running the current systems." Various industry groups have noted that the commonwealth's IT staff have not been trained on open standards. Indeed, the policies seemed to be aimed primarily at new system acquisition decisions and subsequent activities.

Kriss also said that the policies were approved by the Executive branch and effective January 12, 2004.

CompTIA, the 22-year-old global trade association, unsurprisingly had a somewhat different view of the policies.

In a separate interview with Grant Mydland, Director of State Government Relations and Grassroots Program, and his associates Melanie Wyne and Mike Wendy, Mydland expressed concern that the finalized policies still contained ambiguities and vague language.

One example, according to Wyne, included the definition of Open Standards, itself, in the Enterprise Open Standards Policy. In the definition, "Open Standards: Specifications for systems that are publicly available and are developed by an open community and affirmed by a standards body," Wyne said the reference to "an open community" appeared vague.

The very next line in the policy cites HTML as an example of open standards. As many will recall, HTML was originally created to allow researchers a common format in which to distribute information. HTML, of course, is displayed in browsers, such as Netscape, Mozilla and Internet Explorer. Although many companies have tried to push specialized extensions into the language, most current browsers render pages more or less the same. The fact that numerous HTML editors and browsers have been available and interoperable by many different vendors since the mid 1990s suggests that the language is an open standard, in spite of various companies attempts to "close the community" and make HTML proprietary.

Similarly, later in the same document, the phrase "build once, use many times," needed to be more well defined, according to Wyne. Bouncing the phrase against the very next line in the policy, "Open systems and specifications are often less costly to acquire, develop and maintain and do not result in vendor lock-in," would seem to strengthen the opportunity for all vendors, open or proprietary, to compete for contracts. Obviously, single-use models and vendor lock-in have been a major concern of Kriss and his department in the past.

The CompTIA group was also unhappy with references the word "portable" in the Enterprise Technical Reference Model document. CompTIA's issue was that portable could be interpreted to preclude proprietary software models.

CompTIA's concerns are certainly there to be examined, though it should be noted that while CompTIA has its own Linux certification program, the company has historically strong ties to proprietary software companies and is chair of the Inititive for Software Choice lobbyist group. The ISC is heavily funded by Microsoft to lobby against open-source deployments and legislation in governments around the world.

How will this seeming ambiguity will affect future IT decisions by the commonwealth? Clearly, the government department is willing to try it out and see.

Rob Reilly is a freelance Technology Writer and Speaker. He's particularly interested in stories about Linux on the desktop/laptop, recycling with Linux and portable computing. He's currently developing seminars on Linux presentation technology, "road warrior" techniques and business web basics. Send him a note or visit his web site at http://home.earthlink.net/~robreilly.

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