SA Government to standardise on ODF

From Tectonic, the South African government accepts ODF as the document standard. The adoption of ODF (Open Document Format) in our government is indeed great news, and hopefully it will have an effect on other developing countries when decisions like these are made.

What disturbs me though, is the criteria for what qualifies as an open standard, according to the MIOS document:

  • It should be maintained by a non-commercial organization
  • Participation in the ongoing development work is based on decision- making processes that are open to all interested parties.
  • Open access: all may access committee documents, drafts and completed standards free of cost or for a negligible fee.
  • It must be possible for everyone to copy, distribute and use the standard free of cost.
  • The intellectual rights required to implement the standard (e.g. essential patent claims) are irrevocably available, without any royalties attached.
  • There are no reservations regarding reuse of the standard.
  • There are multiple implementations of the standard

Firstly, why should a standard have to be maintained by a non-commercial organisation in order to be considered a standard? (And why does this document use American spelling everywhere? Doesn’t our government know that South African English is derived from the English?). I am quite sure that an open standard doesn’t need to be any less open if it’s maintained by a commercial organisation. Some might say that commercial companies may have vested interests, but this is true for many non-profit organisations, especially those funded by big commercial funders. Whether it’s a non-profit or for-profit organistaion, in my opinion, shouldn’t make a difference at all.

The third point seems to refer to the specifications of the open standards. What in the world does “or for a neglibible fee” mean!? In the next line they do state that everyone must be able to access and distribute it at no cost, so it seems that the intention is to have the specifications available at no cost, so I think they should’ve just dropped the “neglibible fee” part. Paying for distribution of a free standard is fine, in my opinion, but no one should have to pay for access to a standard, not even a so-called “negligible fee”.

I would personally be much more happy if they chose a definition more in line with the W3C Open Standard definition is far superior.

It gets worse though. On page 13 of MIOS, it says that FTP should be used as file transfer method in government intranets. Uhm.. what? Someone should tell the authors that 1985 called and want their file-sharing utilities back. FTP doesn’t even hae encryption or compression, not very good for government departments where security is important. Also, there SO many better ways to tranfer files, that work on all operating systems. Transfering files using the SSH protocol, is one example, and with clients such as GNOME-VFS and WinSCP, it’s easier to use than an FTP client as well. (on Page 16 though, they do make a small mention about SSH for file transport, but SSH should most certainly take precedence over FTP)

Later they say “Web based technology is to be used in applications that previously used Terminal Emulation whenever possible.”. I wonder how they want to do that? An AJAX based web interface? Should it use Java to provide a terminal emulator? That doesn’t sound like e very clever requirement to me. I think someone might have suggested that new software that’s developed for government should be preferably web-based, and then it got mangled along the way.

The rest of Page 13 is quite cool though. Yay RSS!

It goes a bit downhill again in Page 14: “Government information systems will be designed so that as such information as possible can be accessed and manipulated from common commercial browsers through utilisation of functionality freely
supported and available within the browser community.” Why target compatibility with “common commercial browsers”!? They should be targeting compatibility with established Internet standards instead. We seriously don’t want to see more crappy web interfaces “optimised for IE4 or better”! On Page 15, they do say that web services should adhere to standards developed by the W3C and OASIS. I don’t know why they have the contradicting terms though, there are bad people in this world who like to manipulate these contradictions for their own profit.

On Page 20, page 6, I think they could have specified Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora explicitly, especially since they made so much effort spelling out all the MPEG formats.

It’s really, really great to see government make good moves on open standards, but in my opinion, as a document for “Minimum Interoperability Standards”, they could have done better. The good news at least, is that everything required in the document is available and easy in Ubuntu, which is good news for companies who deploy systems and solutions at government sites. Besides the contradictions in the definition and the preference to FTP, I suppose this document is quite ok. I’m a bit tired and might be a bit harsh, so I’d love to see what people like Benjamin “mako” Hill (who really care about definitions) would say about this document.

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2 Responses

  1. Vincent says:

    Quite a few odd points indeed, but already great stuff that I wish my government had decided :D

  1. 25 October 2007

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