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This paper will be the basis of presentations I will be giving at NRC's Government on the Net 03 (Ottawa, April 14 - 16, 2003) and Real World Linux (April 28-30, 2003 Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Toronto). Here is the bio/abstract for Real World Linux:
For government to receive the benefits of this disruptive technology, ways in which FLOSS is different from Software Manufacturing (proprietary software) must become better understood.
Using the office productivity suite OpenOffice.org 1.0 as an example, I will outline various issues and policy areas including competition, procurement, trade, and intellectual property. Suppliers of software services to the government, as well as government policy makers, will benefit from this discussion.
Russell McOrmond of FLORA Community Consulting has been a self employed consultant specializing in Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) based Information and Communications Technology services since 1995. Through offering services to the government (directly or via a reseller/client), and through personal interest in public policy, he has gained experience into the interactions between FLOSS, the Internet, government procurement and other government public policy.
I argue that the Government of Canada has a better alternative, which is to leverage their position as the largest Canadian procurer of software to push vendors toward international standardization.
Work is already underway in organizations such as the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) to create XML standards for office suites. The reference implementation for this open standard will be OpenOffice.org, a FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Source Software) application. The opportunity exists for the Government of Canada to help solve their own compatibility problems, as well as those of all Canadians and citizens worldwide.
The Government of Canada also has obligations under various trade agreements to adopt the most standards based approach, and to enable open open competition between vendors. While previously specifying that any Office Suite purchased by the Government of Canada must be compatible with Microsoft Office files, this will be disallowed in the future due to the existence of an international standard around these tools coupled with obligations under trade agreements.
Article 1007: Technical Specifications
1. Each Party shall ensure that its entities do not prepare, adopt or apply any technical specification with the purpose or the effect of creating unnecessary obstacles to trade.
2. Each Party shall ensure that any technical specification prescribed by its entities is, where appropriate:
- specified in terms of performance criteria rather than design or descriptive characteristics; and
- based on international standards, national technical regulations, recognized national standards, or building codes.
3. Each Party shall ensure that the technical specifications prescribed by its entities do not require or refer to a particular trademark or name, patent, design or type, specific origin or producer or supplier unless there is no sufficiently precise or intelligible way of otherwise describing the procurement requirements and provided that, in such cases, words such as "or equivalent" are included in the tender documentation.
4. Each Party shall ensure that its entities do not seek or accept, in a manner that would have the effect of precluding competition, advice that may be used in the preparation or adoption of any technical specification for a specific procurement from a person that may have a commercial interest in that procurement.
In early 2001, one of my clients filed a complaint with the Canadian International Trade Tribunal (CITT). The complaint dealt with a procurement with the Library of Parliament of a media monitoring service, which my client P&L Communications wished to bid on. The source of the complaint was a requirement from the Library of Parliament that the service be implimented on Microsoft Windows NT. P&L Communications argued that this was not a valid technical specification, but a specific brand name, and that this would unfairly discriminate against our offering which was based on Linux and other open standards.
The solution being procured needed only be understood as a "black box" installed onto the corporate network of the Library of Parliament. As an intranet application server needed only to conform to recognized standards such as Ethernet, TCP/IP and various W3C standards. While the P&L Communications bid offered a solution based entirely on internationally recognized standards, the Library of Parliament was not willing to accept this bid and wanted to favor a proprietary vendor-dependant solution.
We won the case with the CITT, which was seen by the FLOSS community as a victory for the entire community. In essense we receive precident that government departments are not allowed to specify brand names as a proxy for technical requirements. To quote the decition (CITT File No. PR-2000-073):
... the Library, in setting out the requirements of the RFP, relied extensively on trade names as a proxy for performance specifications, when recognized open standards exist, and introduced unallowable and/or unsupported and non-documented extra support costs for bidders offering non-Microsoft-based solutions, thereby structuring an RFP that favours one class of bidders, those offering Microsoft-based solutions, over the other bidders. In the Tribunal's opinion, this amounts to discrimination.
While this issue dealt with standards-based Intranet applications, the same decision applies to all government procurements that involve technical specifications. This decision will obligate deparments in the Government of Canada to procure office suites based on recognized international standards, once set.
The best way for departments to become familiar with these standards early is to investigate what will become the reference implimentation for this standard, OpenOffice.org. Since OpenOffice.org is FLOSS, there are no royalty or license fees, and the only expense is staff-time in learning a new suite. Given that this option will be the best choice for many departments with low budgets, any time spent toward early adoption will offer considerable savings.
In what is likely the most embarassing website hosted by the Government of Canada, I will comment on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) site at http://www.crtc.gc.ca. The CRTC is an independent agency responsible for regulating Canada's broadcasting and telecommunications systems. While they are resonsible for regulating telecommunications systems, they seem to be doing the opposite with software based Information and Communications Technology (ICT) tools by very visably promoting specific non-standard branded technology on their site.
Many pages on the CRTC site contain the text "Viewing Tools: Special software needed to read non-HTML documents", which then references the page: http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/help.htm#read which states:
PDF (Portable Document Format) and ZIP are vendor-neutral published formats. While each has a vendor associated with the published documentation for the file format, there are many tools available for each from multiple vendors, and include FLOSS implementations. I maintain a page http://www.flora.ca/pdf.shtml on my own server to document some of the options available for PDF.
How do I read documents that are not .html?
Some of the documents on our site have originated outside the Commission and are in a format other than HTML. These documents may require the use of a special reader.
Documents with a .pdf extension require the use of Adobe Acrobat Reader, available at http://www.adobe.com
Documents with a .zip extension are zipped documents and can be 'unzipped' using Winzip, available at http://www.winzip.com
Documents with a .doc extension are MSWord documents and can be opened with a Word viewer available at http://office.microsoft.com
Documents with an .xls extension can be read using an Excel viewer available at http://office.microsoft.com
Date Modified: 2001-12-04
DOC and XLS are proprietary Microsoft-branded file formats. The viewer that the CRTC referenced is not software available for free, but optionally installable but bundled features of the Microsoft Windows platform. When the CRTC send people to the http://office.microsoft.com site they are providing free advertising for the products of this single vendor, both in terms of their Operating System monopoly (The viewer only runs on Microsoft Windows) and their Office Suite monopoly (the site is primarily the marketing site for Microsoft Office).
While alternative office suites, such as OpenOffice.org, are able to open and save documents in DOC and XLS format, this does not give any Government of Canada agency an excuse to promote these branded file formats. These file formats are not open vendor-neutral file formats, and can (and most often have) changed with each new version of Microsoft Office. Deliberate incompatibilities in Microsoft Office file formats has been a well known marketing tactic for Microsoft to encourage people to abandon existing software to upgrade to the latest version of their product.
Any compatability that third party office suites have with DOC and XLS are also accomplished through reverse-engineering the file formats. This is an action that has historically been recognized as a protected right, but this right has come under recent attack within copyright reform through "Legal protection for Technological Protection Measures".
Quickly-searched examples from MERX:
Section 6 of the Government Contract Regulations is being invoked in this procurement as only one person or firm is capable of performing the contract.
Bidders should note that it is mandatory that the successful bidder perform the contract production services using manuscripts developed in the source Microsoft Office 95 software formats currently employed by Environment Canada in Fiscal Year 2002-2003. It is forecast that these source manuscripts will remain in the production process for the duration of the contract.Would it be clear to someone submitting a bid that the use of OpenOffice.org 1.0 would qualify given it is compatable with "Microsoft Office 95 software formats"?
"Bidders must have access to Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel version 97 and AutoCad 2000 in order to open the drawings on CD-ROM. "
2) The second phase of this project includes new WEB based functionality in the Order module using Microsoft VisualStudio.Net as the development platform, and the bar-coding study.