Can the value for money principle survive the Standard Format battle?

Did you hear that the Ballot Resolution Meeting (BRM) of the International Standards Organisation (ISO) for Draft Standard 29500 concluded last Saturday (Australian Time).

You missed that? Well you are no Robinson Crusoe and life goes on.

The BRM on DS29500 was a meeting of national delegations composed primarily, though not exclusively, of technical experts intended to consider proposed changes to the specification of the Office Open XML (OOXML) file format, currently being put forward by the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) for ratification by the ISO.

Why am I mentioning something as stupefying and archaic as file format standards on a public affairs blog site? Good question. I can say sincerely that I wish I didn’t have to and I really believe I shouldn’t have to even mention file formats on this site. I realise that doing so runs the risk of losing the significance of an issue to the complexity of the subject. Not a good political practice so stick with me...

I would have hoped and I am sure you would have thought that whether a file format would be given ratification as a standard by the most well recognised international standards body on this earth would have been resolved simply on the question of whether the format’s description was accurate and the format specification efficient and effective.

Sadly it appears some people would prefer that corporate politics, envy, vengeance and even personal ego should have as much to do with whether a file format is made a standard as the quality of the thing being put forward for standardisation.

Most file formats proposed to the ISO get as much attention as the public facilities officer in a local council. Not OOXML. There is a commercial battle over the ISO ratification of OOXML and that battle has very little to do with whether this thing is well described, efficient or effective.

I say ‘thing’ deliberately. I am not a technical computer expert – I barely qualify as educated user – and to me a file format is a piece of the magic of computing. While we all use these formats every time we turn on our computers and start creating documents and spreadsheets they are like children, as my mother use to say, better off not seen and not heard.

Wikipedia defines a file format as: “...a particular way to encode information for storage in a computer file.”

Wikipedia also makes the point that:” Within any format type, e.g., word processor documents, there will typically be several different formats. Sometimes these formats compete with each other.”

And here comes the rub of the OOXML battle.

Keep this to yourself but the truth is the formats don’t actually compete with one another. Commercial entities like Microsoft and IBM, Novell and Oracle, Sun Microsystems and Apple compete with one another. They compete to get computer users to use and buy their products. They compete in many ways using many points of differentiation.

That is how a competitive market works. Such markets are generally efficient in seeing scarce resources – like government technology budgets – allocated to purchasing goods and services that deliver outcomes for citizens.

OOXML is a new file format that has been adopted and now incorporated and supported in products by numerous IT companies including Microsoft, Apple, Intel, Novell, Google and PalmOS. But as it is not yet an ISO standard. There are some IT companies with rival products that don’t use OOXML that would like to ensure OOXML does not get made an ISO standard.

And can you see why that would be in their interests?

If OOXML is not an ISO standard then, for a fraction of a moment, those companies that use file formats that are not OOXML may have a competitive advantage – particularly if they can convince governments that governments MUST use only products that support only ISO standards.

And therein lays the public policy question of this blog – should governments be involved in influencing or deciding whether a particular technology is made a standard for industry? Or should they concern themselves with what the Federal Department of Finance calls the ‘core’ principle of Australian Government procurement – Value for Money.

What should governments be concerned about: Whether a technology is made a standard or whether a technology product, with or without standards, enables their public policy priorities?

Governments are significant users of technology. They have an intense interest in being able to purchase products that enable them to achieve their policy goals at a cost that is reasonable and justifiable to the public who provide taxes to purchase the goods in the first place.

Price is a basic factor of supply and demand. The more product choice available in any particular commercial field the lower the resulting price, the greater the incentive for product innovation and generally the better the end outcomes for consumers. It is not clear that selecting technology standards should be a public policy goal for government.

If OOXML is considered technically good enough to be an ISO standard it is to be hoped, for taxpayers’ sake, that other factors are not used to block its approval and thereby stifle greater technology competition and ultimately choice.

Simon Edwards, Manager, Government and Industry Affairs

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