Governments should select between functionally equivalent standards in IT procurement, recommends Tineke Egyedi, a specialist on standardisation issues at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. In a study published this Tuesday, she concludes that competing standards decrease overall interoperability, fragment the market and can result in costly vendor lock-in.
Egyedi, vice-president of the European Academy for Standardization (Euras), calls on the European Commission to improve the rules for procurement. Governments now get stuck between two roles, as a user of IT and as a regulator of market competition. "The EC should review the tension between interoperability and competition."
Public administrations should explain in their procurement documents the problems caused by competing standards, and why it is necessary to select one and not support two or more, she writes. "(...) benefits of standardisation get lost with multiple standards."
In an annex to her paper, Egyedi concentrates on the current standard war between the Open Document Format (ODF) and Microsoft's alternative, Office Open XML (OOXML), approved in 2006 and 2008 respectively by the International Standardization Organisation ISO.
She points out that the arrival of the second standard, OOXML, supported by a dominant player, prolongs vendor lock-in and increases costs by governments that feel forced to support both standards.
Egyedi also criticizes standardisation bodies ("the supply-side of the standardisation market") for allowing competing standards. "Ending up with two very similar rival committee standards casts doubt on (ISO's) effectiveness in coordinating the IT market and providing a real alternative to market processes."
She urges European countries to correct the "'perverse' business incentives of standard setting organisations", by becoming active participants in the standardisation process. "To best serve the public interest in an interoperable, sustainable and affordable (i.e. vendor-independent) IT-infrastructure, governments should participate in key standardisation projects. This is likely to be more effective than retrospect selection."
To Select or Not? Dealing with Competing Standards in Public IT Procurement Tineke M. Egyedi, Delft University of Technology, 2012 (pdf)