The recently published government ICT strategy makes interesting reading. The government is clearly trying to learn some of the lessons of previous failures, albeit without really getting to grips with the underlying reasons for these failures.
One of the government's explicit strategy statements makes very interesting reading:
The adoption of compulsory open standards will help government to avoid lengthy vendor lock-in, allowing the transfer of services or suppliers without excessive transition costs, loss of data or significant functionality.
Will open standards really do this?
Let's turn this on its head; what are the typical reasons for vendor lock-in? Here is my starter for 10 in no particular order:
- The software offers must-have features which competitors do not have.
- The organisation using the software has adapted its business processes to fit with how the software works.
- The organisation using the software has made a considerable investment in training its staff in how to use the software.
- The software is integrated with other systems that the organisation uses.
- Difficulty of data migration
Which of these will open standards help with? As far as I can tell only number 4; use of open standards in interface specifications should in principle allow substitutivity of standards-compliant components on either side of the interface. I say in principle because for any reasonably sophisticated enterprise system, an interface will be a key part of a business process, which will one way or another be organisation specific. It is typically a non-trivial task (in some cases impossible) to substitute another component into this business process without impacting the business process, leading to item 2 in the above list.
Don't get me wrong: open standards are great and to be applauded - I glory in my ability to choose my browser according to my mood. However let's not kid ourselves that be adopting them we are going to see a public sector IT world free of Oracle and MS Office any time soon.