Internaut: Heading into 2006, standards bode well

Shawn P. McCarthy

Open standards are always a hot topic in government. And there's recently been a flurry of standards activity that could influence the decisions government IT managers make when it comes to application development, data sharing and security.

Let's look at some highlights and discuss why IT managers should continue to monitor these developments.

First, Microsoft Corp. last month announced it would submit the file formats for its new Office 12 applications to ECMA International, a European standards body that helps coordinate open-standards efforts (www.ecma-international.org). The fully documented standard, called Microsoft Office Open XML, will build on the XML standards that were part of Office 2003. The goal is to allow document contents to be accessed, shared, searched and integrated with other content as needed.

On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. The government needs a more open way to share tagged data and full documents in cross-platform environments. But it's not clear whether Microsoft's proposal will allow open-source coders to use Office Open XML formats in non-Microsoft implementations. Other questions revolve around licensing rules, and who might own the development of proprietary extensions.

As government IT managers make decisions on future file formats, for everything from document storage to how they interact with citizens, open document standards will play an increasingly important role. They should insist on answers to the above questions before making their long-term decisions.

Second, the Open Source Development Lab, a consortium of Linux technology companies and experts, recently launched a site called Patent Commons (www.patentcommons.org) to help track and improve the availability of patents which have been pledged to the support of open-source software. There are over 500 so far.

Such an effort could protect open-software efforts from vendor claims that applications or operating systems infringe on other patents they might hold. On the downside, the Patent Commons can't specifically tell developers what's not covered by other patents that haven't been pledged to the open-source effort.

Government IT and compliance managers have two reasons to track the OSDL's efforts: 1) In the case where agencies choose to develop their own applications, they often rely on open-source solutions. 2) Contracted IT service providers often rely on open-source solutions, which they may install and run within agency IT centers.

In both cases, compliance with patents and licensing rules is very important. Checking the patent database could be a way to prove that certain technologies have been dedicated to the open-source community.

Finally, the Liberty Alliance, a group of more than 150 companies, nonprofit and government organizations that works to develop open standards for federated network identity, recently gave thumbs up to several identity and authentication solutions. The solutions, from vendors such as Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and NEC Corp., received a passing grade on the alliance's stringent interoperability tests.

As you probably know, the idea behind federated ID is to allow users to link identity data across accounts without a central repository of personal information. One goal is to give users control of their account attributes and how they're associated across domains, machines and services.
Government systems architects who need to coordinate security and access solutions across multiple networks will want to review the Liberty Alliance interoperability tests to see if the solutions will work for their systems. A list of approved products can be found at www.projectliberty.org/about/enabledproducts.php.

These three standards efforts show substantial progress on the open-source front, and it's very likely that government IT managers will take advantage of the new offerings.

Former GCN writer Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC of Framingham, Mass. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

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