[fosscomm] When Commercial Considerations and National Interests Collide

Venkatesh Hariharan venkyh at gmail.com
Fri Jul 10 23:02:06 PDT 2009


An excellent post on the open standards issue by Prodyut Bora,
convenor of the IT Cell of the BJP.

Venky
=====

When Commercial Considerations and National Interests Collide

http://blog.prodyutbora.org/?p=116

Jul. 11th 2009 in IT

For all those who have been tracking the information technology (IT)
business sector, it is of interest—and concern—to see the rise of the
’standards’ debate once again. Rekindling the debate has been the
paper released by the Department of Information Technology (DIT)
titled Draft Policy on Open Standards for e-Governance.

The draft policy statement contained in the paper states: ‘It is
imperative that India as a Nation makes use of Open Standards for
e-Governance.’ The reasons cited for such a policy were, amongst
others, to ‘ensure reliable long term accessibility to public
documents and information’; and ‘provide users larger spectrum of
choice of solutions and flexibility by avoiding lockin to specific
vendor or proprietary solutions for both hardware and software’.

So far so good, and the Government’s intentions look entirely
honourable. It would be nobody’s business to argue that we should
promote vendor lock-in, particularly when it comes to public data.
Just imagine: 25 years down the line you cannot open a spreadsheet
file created today, because the software giant whose product was used
to create the file has shut down, and the product is no more
available! A difficult scenario to imagine, but not entirely
impossible. Who would have thought that a GM would implode, or an
Arthur Andersen just wiped out!

In any case, while the Government came out with this policy, the cat
among the pigeons has been set by the question: should be have only
one open standard, or multiple open standards? Industry body Nasscom,
supposedly representing the consensus of the software industry, or at
least the majority view, said multiple standards.

Not at all, cried some, particularly IT biggies like IBM, Sun and Redhat.

Should the reader be wondering what the fuss is all about, and isn’t
the debate too academic, it would be pertinent to point out that the
big dust has been kicked off by to the prize in question: eGovernance
contracts worth, according to some, of at least 30000 crores. The main
piece would of course be the (Unified Identity) UID project, for which
Nandan Nilekani has been appointed as top man, but several other
important eGovernance projects are in the wings too.

Central to capturing as much of the prize as is possible is the
politics of software standards, and how it is played out.

So what is a standard after all, and what is this politics of
standards? In the software world, a ‘standard’ is generally understood
to be a set of ‘criteria, methods, processes and practices’ that
determine how pieces of software code interact with hardware and other
pieces of software. Both industry associations and individual
companies come up with standards. In both cases, there is generally a
concerted effort to see that maximum players accept it; the ultimate
being the state when all, or most, of the industry adopts it, and the
standard gets referred to as the ‘industry standard’. Standards get a
boost when recognised by statutory institutions, but statutory
recognition is not synonymous with market dominance. Standards can be
‘open’—that is, open to inspection and alteration by, and for,
oneself—or ‘closed’ to scrutiny and change. Similarly use of standards
can be made chargeable, or provided free.

There is a reason why standards, whether in software or other
industries, need to be promoted. From a customer’s perspective,
standards promote interoperability and thereby bring down what is
referred to as ‘social costs’. Just imagine a world where all paper
manufacturers came up with their own dimensions of A4 paper! You would
need different sets of printers to print these varying ‘A4’ pages. Or
just imagine a situation where web-based email sent from a particular
browser can be opened on another computer using only that specific
browser! People would have to install tens of different browsers to
read mails sent by others. Now just think how much money and hassle
have been saved by using standards-based interoperable products.

Standards bring down social costs in another way: by promoting
competition and innovation. Wherever standards exist and are adopted
industry-wide, companies feel encouraged to create new products as
they are secure in the knowledge that their products would be able to
interoperate with other software, and therefore would be much more
acceptable to customers.

Coming back to the current issue, there are 4 questions to be
answered: should India use (a) open or closed standards; (b)
chargeable or royalty-free standards; (c) industry-promoted standards
or standards proprietary to a particular company; and (d) single or
multiple standards?

DIT has already answered the first three questions in the Draft
Policy. Its Guiding Principles for Selection of Standards states that
they should ‘be without royalty and without any patent related
encumbrances till the life time of the standard’; ‘be available in
publicly accessible form’; and ‘be developed and owned by a body where
all stakeholders can opt to participate in a transparent collaborative
consensus driven process’.

The current debate is regarding the fourth question: should India
adopt a single standard in its eGovernance projects, or should there
be a multiplicity of ‘interoperable’ standards?

I would argue that this is the very beginning of the digital
millennium and it is in our national interest to preserve our ‘digital
sovereignty’. Our public data—whether it be land records, or taxation
records, or governmental correspondence—is national property. Why
should it be locked-up in the proprietary algorithms of a
multinational software corporation, even if it comes to us at present
for free? We owe it to our future generations to handover the data,
information and knowledge we generate in a manner that is free of any
technological encumbrance.

Given this perspective, the current demand for multiple standards by
Nasscom is misplaced. Multiple standards would introduce duplicacy and
reduce perfect interoperability between competing products. Whereas a
single open standard would remove entry barriers and encourage
innovation by small local firms with limited risk appetite, multiple
standards would favour market-dominating multinational Goliaths and
the Indian software services majors that make money by servicing such
Goliaths. Multiple standards would also result in unnecessarily high
costs incurred in writing ‘bridge’ code to connect different products,
and things like data migration.

It is because of such short-sightedness in the past that we have
landed up with a plethora of identity systems—Election ID Card, PAN
Card, Ration Card—before finally the wisdom of a unified ID system
dawned.

So far, the Government has very wisely thought in terms of an ‘open’
IT ecosystem. But where commercial considerations and national
interests have collided, Nasscom very sadly seems to have favoured the
former.

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