India boosts IT companies with Open Standards – Europe to be left behind?

It’s not often that we get to celebrate a full-blown victory in Free Software policy work. Tuesday was such a day, as India’s government announced its policy on Open Standards.

The government’s decision is the end of a three-year battle between Free Software advocates and proprietary software vendors. The document (pdf) is short and sweet. The policy’s objective, in full:

The Policy provides a framework for the selection of Standards to facilitate interoperability between systems developed by multiple agencies. It provides organizations the flexibility to select different hardware and software for implementing cost-effective e-Governance solutions. It, therefore, promotes technology choice, and avoids vendor lock-in. It aims for reliable long-term accessibility to public documents and information in Indian context.

(Emphasis added)

Some crucial points:

Mandatory Characteristics

  • 4.1.2 The Patent claims necessary to implement the Identified Standard shall be made available on a Royalty-Free basis for the life time of the Standard.

That’s pretty clear. They could have added that the standard must have no restrictions that limit its implementation by anyone, in any business or software model.

  • 4.1.3 Identified Standard shall be adopted and maintained by a not-for-profit organization, wherein all stakeholders can opt to participate in a transparent, collaborative and consensual manner.

Sound familiar? We’ve been saying something similar for quite a while

  • 4.1.4 Identified Standard shall be recursively open as far as possible.

Same here.

And what if no standard exists yet for a particular area? Well, Free Software to the rescue. The government’s first preference in such cases will be to establish an interim standard based on the specifications of a mature Free Software reference implementation.

This policy is pretty much exemplary. And it’s a far cry from the sad state that the European Interoperability Framework (EIF) is in. Where the Indian document improved between revisions, the EIF has only got worse.

India’s public authorities will now be able to choose freely between suppliers, instead of being locked into proprietary formats and protocols. India’s citizens will now be free to use any software they wish to connect with their government, including Free Software.

Anyone who wants to supply software to India’s government will now have to wisen up about Open Standards. The country’s eGovernment market has a size of ten billion USD. With this prize dangling before them, I predict that the country’s IT companies will be quick to catch on, along with international Free Software vendors.

The European Commission now has to make a choice. It can continue to pour our tax Euros into a software market that is locked down by a few dominant companies. Or it can do what India just did: Use a strong Open Standards policy to open the market for competition from all suppliers out there. Glyn Moody sums up the consequences:

As a result, free software would be more likely to flourish in India than it would in Europe, since it would not be shut out of some government contracts constrained by proprietary standards, with all that this means for lack of choice and higher costs. India will end up with a richer and more dynamic software ecosystem than Europe, which will further disadvantage European coders struggling with economies that are not of the healthiest.

Put another way, India’s software developers just scored big time on competitive advantage. Will the European Commission and the member states provide us with the same advantage? Or will they continue to stand by and watch Europe’s software companies be overtaken (and, eventually, taken over) by those firms that will hone their skills in a highly competitive Indian market?

Over to you, Brussels.