'The era of closed formats is dead'

By   |  June 13, 2008

The South African e-documentation workgroup is hosting a number of the world’s most influential XML and open standards activists at the “XML in Government Workshop” next week. One of the key figures behind the event – and indeed behind much of the XML and digital standards work in South Africa – is Bob Jolliffe. A member of the South African department of science and technology, a founder of Freedom to Innovate South Africa (FTISA), and someone who has spent the best part of the past year arguing the merits and demerits of OOXML, he explains here how far the movement to open standards and XML in government has progressed.

What is intention of the XML in Government Workshop?
The South African government has made a strong commitment to the use of XML and open standards for interoperability. Yet we are only at the very beginning of understanding all of the possibilities and implications of these commitments. One of the factors which surfaces repeatedly is that we do not necessarily have all the expertise required to fully realise the potential of open standards-based interoperability. I firmly believe that in South Africa, contrary to what we have heard recently, capacity does exist, but it is dispersed amongst government, the private sector, academia, the wider FOSS community and the public.

We hope in this workshop to bring some of that public together to look at building collaborative forums for further developing XML based open standards. It is not by accident that this workshop is being driven by the Presidential National Commission on the Information Society and Development eDocumentation workgroup. Open standards are an information society issue as much as a technical one.

Why are XML standards important for the public sector?
The XML standard itself is 10 years old this year. Over the course of those 10 years, XML has permeated into every area of information systems. The era of the closed binary formats and protocols is dead. The public sector has a particular obligation for ensuring that new systems protect long term investment of public money, are transparent and do not favour particular vendors. XML is not a silver bullet here, but is certainly one piece of an information systems governance strategy which can promote these objectives.

“Keep sending ODF documents to government agencies and requiring that they accept them.”

What becomes increasingly important are the specific XML grammars which are adopted and built. In all cases it is preferable that these are open standards and also should have multiple implementations, including free software ones. The government’s FOSS strategy is quite widely known. One of the key pre-requisites for more progress to be made on implementation of that strategy is that truly open standards are mandated throughout government information systems.

What are the achievements to date in the adoption of XML standards in the public sector?
In terms of the Minimum Interoperability Standard, it is possible to leave the impression that great strides have been made. Probably most significantly we have adopted the Open Document Format (ODF) for document exchange. There are also important standards like XForms for forms data, webservices and metadata standards etc. In the normal run of purchasing systems of course we end up with a lot of XML based stuff. Not all of it is standard or published. This is an area I would like to see us working more on. Part of that work involves learning more about these standards ourselves. That is one of the reasons that I am really looking forward to some of the tutorials we have planned in the workshop.

Open Document Format (ODF) is already an ISO standard. How widely is ODF adopted within the public sector?
I think it is fair to say that the uptake has been uneven, with some departments moving more easily than others. All government CIOs did receive a directive from SITA this year that they should be able to read ODF documents as from April 2008. One of the best ways to ensure this happens is for the likes of you and your readers to keep sending ODF documents to government agencies and requiring that they accept them. Most departments have a plan for fuller support in 2008/2009.

I was pleased to hear the recent announcement from Microsoft that they intend to provide full support for ODF in Office 2007 early next year. It would of course be better if they could extend that support back to Office 2003 but we will keep asking

What are the most obvious challenges to the adoption of XML/ODF in government?
Adoption of ODF is not a straightforward proposition. Remember that there has been an almost total monopoly of desktop software for some years which has gathered quite some significant amount of inertia behind it. Simply switching everybody’s Microsoft Office to OpenOffice, StarOffice, Symphony or Koffice is neither easily doable or even necessarily desirable. What is important is to ensure that the current monopoly situation does not perpetuate itself indefinitely through binding file formats.
If departments wish to run OpenOffice on Ubuntu Linux, for example, they should be strongly encouraged to do that. Currently the majority of users run Microsoft software, not because they have chosen to, but because they have been so effectively locked in to that paradigm. This is what I would like to see change. Adopting ODF as a common document standard promotes that freedom of choice. Its a bit like the way standard html, xhtml and css give users a real choice of standards compliant browser software.

One of the big dangers I see is the proliferation of backend office software which is so tightly coupled with single vendor’s office products. The promotion of open standards-based procurement of electronic document management systems is an urgent challenge.

The SABS played a key role in the recent OOXML decision, and appeal against it. How important is SABS in ensuring the success of XML formats in the public sector?
I can’t comment on the pending appeal with ISO/IEC.
I do believe that SABS has a potentially vital role to play in the standardising of formats used in the public sector. Though it is important to make the distinction that SABS develops standards for the country, not for government. I would like to see government agencies playing a much more active role in the SABS technical committees. SABS provides the forums and the processes for bringing the public interest together on its committees. That’s what it does – the rest is up to us. I believe it is really important for government, the open source community and the private sector that they make use of this public service to promote all of our collective interest.

And what of other digital standards? Are there other threats to the exchange of government information posed by proprietary formats?
Probably. Two things concern me. One is where we give vendors, contractors and consultants too free a range in defining these things without placing strict enough obligations on the documentation and publication of the formats used. The ideal situation for me would be that either they are obliged to use a South African National Standard wherever possible, and where it is not, that they submit such formats that they may have developed to a relevant technical committee of SABS for consideration as a national standard. The other is the extent to which we have seen patents being granted in South Africa for a wide range of subject matter relating to information exchange.This is an extremely worrying trend and I would hope that organisations like FTISA will play a watchdog role in monitoring developments in our patent office.

Microsoft’s OOXML standard is under appeal at the ISO/IEC. Do you believe OOXML will ever be adopted as an ISO standard?
I believe South Africa will meet Ireland in the 2010 world cup final. Which shows how seriously you should take what I believe. “Ever” is a strong word. Do I believe it is ready to be adopted now: No. In the future? I hope that the question will become irrelevant as what we really need from vendors is consensus around a document format. I think Patrick Durusau’s thoughts around this question on Tuesday morning will be worth listening to. I’m not saying I will agree with him.

The XML in Government Workshop will be held from the 17 – 20 June next week at the Tshwane University of Technology. It is open to all who want to attend and will include speakers such as Steve Pepper, Rob Weir and Patrick Durusau. Find out more here.

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2 Responses to “'The era of closed formats is dead'”

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