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EC calls for use of ICT standards to battle IT vendor-lock

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All of Europe's public administrations should use ICT standards "to help alleviate the lock-in of their ICT systems, encourage competition and underpin the development of the European digital single market", the European Commission said today. The EC today publishes its 'Guide for the procurement of standards-based ICT', a practical tool to help procurers, IT managers, strategists and architects decide which standards are relevant and useful.

The Commission expects that ICT systems based on standards boost interoperability, innovation, competition, while lowering costs. Such ICT solutions will also improve interaction with citizens, the EC writes. "Making better use of standards allowing competitors to provide alternative solutions will diminish lock-in and increase competition". This levels the playing field and will reduce prices and increase quality, the Commission expects.

Losing billions

"Many organisations are locked into their ICT systems, so that when they need to buy new components or licenses there are only few potential suppliers (or even just a single one)", the Commission introduces the guide. "This lack of competition leads to higher prices and some 1.1 billion euro per year is lost unnecessarily in the public sector alone." The EC estimates that European public administrations are unnecessarily spending this amount by not using technical specifications and standards, but instead identify their needs by mentioning brand names and products in their calls for tender.

The 40 page guide does not provide a list of recommended standards. The wide variety of standards makes that impossible. However, the guide does offer recommendations on elements of best practice in this type of procurement, with practical examples. It also suggest concrete ways on how to write procurement documents and contracts for ICT.

The road to using ICT standards will be long, the guide warns. "The costs of 'breaking the locks' from legacy systems can be significant on the short term, but these should be considered alongside the future benefits of more open systems within the business appraisal. A long term plan will be needed."

Isolation

The guide warns public administrations to ensure that the standards they select do not contain barriers to implementation by all interested parties. The guide mentions SQL (Structured Query Language). This is a database querying language created in the seventies, and standardised by ISO in 1987 (ISO 9075). "However, interoperability problems between major products still exist due to different interpretations of the standard, due to room for interpretation and the complexity of the standard. There remains the possibility of lock-in for suppliers using this standard." The text also mentions ISO/IEC 29500, ISO/IEC 26300 and ISO 32000, all three standards for document formats. These "reference information that is not accessible by all parties."

To help write procurement, the Guide also includes an annex with six example texts. Suggestions include requesting that the software licence allows sharing the solutions with others, that IPR rights are with the public administration and that data in an ICT system can be made available to alternative systems.

The Guide and the Communication, part of the Digital Agenda, have been in preparation for the past two years. The groundwork includes a survey of public authorities, a workshop in November 2011 and a study.

More information:

Communication: Against lock-in: building open ICT systems by making better use of standards in public
Guide: Guide for the procurement of standards-based ICT — Elements of Good Practice
Translation into 22 languages

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