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EU Commissioner Warns IT Buyers Against Vendor Lock-in

European Commissioner Neelie Kroes warned governments and businesses to avoid vendors that try to lock them in with proprietary technology.

"Choosing open standards is a very smart business decision," she said Thursday at a conference in Brussels organized by Open Forum Europe.

"Public and private procurers of technology should be smart and build their systems as much as possible on standards that everybody can use and implement without constraints," she said, adding that this is good for the bottom line because it promotes competition between suppliers and prevents vendor lock-in.

She asked vendors to act now to make their products interoperable with those of their competitors, and not to wait for a court to force them.

Now European Commissioner for the Digital Agenda, in her previous role as Competition Commissioner Kroes won a long antitrust battle against Microsoft over its failure to help competitors develop software that could interoperate with its Windows server products.

"I had to fight hard and for several years until Microsoft began to license missing interoperability information," she said. That case, and one over its abuse of its monopoly position in the desktop operating system market to influence the market for media players, eventually cost Microsoft hundreds of millions of euros in fines.

However, Kroes said, "Complex antitrust investigations followed by court proceedings are perhaps not the only way to increase interoperability."

Instead, the Commission is looking for other ways of making it more profitable for companies to license the information their competitors need to make interoperable systems, and less profitable to withhold that information.

"Any such initiative would probably be limited to certain types of IT products. And it would likely involve some form of pricing constraints," she said.

Kroes has other plans afoot to influence European Union IT buyers to favor interoperable systems.

The European Interoperability Framework V.2 is one of those. It builds on an earlier set of rules and guidelines for cost-effective public sector procurement of IT systems. The new document is still under discussion -- "The drafting process has not been easy," said Kroes. However, she hopes that it will help public authorities avoid the dangers of long-term lock-in. "It would also ensure competition between suppliers for follow-up contracts and for services. Governments should still be able to choose closed, proprietary products, she said, "but on the basis of a clear justification, rather than because it was the easy option."

Open Forum Europe Chief Executive Graham Taylor said there are signs that Kroes wants further changes made to the draft of EIF V2.

"She clearly is very aware of the controversy around the latest leaked version," he said. "What we have seen is a very bad document."

Recent drafts of the EIF have failed to make any mention of "open standards," so Taylor was pleased to hear Kroes use the term so frequently on Thursday.

Indeed, Kroes did repeat the term, but warned that listing keywords is no substitute for policy. "What matters is the substance. I would urge all stakeholders to focus on the content of the package rather than the wrapping," she said.

Another of Kroes' plans is to make it easier for government buyers to specify open standards when they call for tenders. E.U. legislation currently limits government buyers' scope to require manufacturers to comply with open standards: The buyers can only require standards developed by recognized standards bodies, such as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or national standards bodies; industry standards developed by consortia such as OASIS, ECMA or the W3C don't count.

Kroes said she wants to put relevant standards from such consortia on an equal footing with European and International standards, as long as they meet certain criteria for "openness, consensus, balance and transparency."

If that had been the case in 2008, there might not have been such a battle to get ISO to adopt ECMA Standard 376, otherwise known as Microsoft's Office Open Extensible Markup Language (OOXML) file format. ISO had earlier recognized the OASIS-sponsored standard Open Document Format (ODF) as an international standard.

By making it easier for industry groups to have their standards recognized, she said, "We want to make standard-setting more efficient, not more burdensome. We don't want uniform rules everywhere: we want smart rules that are adapted to their respective fields."

Kroes also promised to help government IT buyers identify their real needs, so that they can specify products without reference to particular brands or suppliers.

"The skills of public authorities vary greatly when it comes to this aspect of procurement," she said. "Many authorities have found themselves unintentionally locked into proprietary technology for decades. [...] This is a waste of public money that most public bodies can no longer afford."

That waste can also directly affect businesses and citizens when public authorities' decisions force them to buy specific products to access a public service, rather than any product compliant with an applicable standard, she said. Examples include schools insisting on the use of a specific word processing system, or tax departments' online forms requiring a specific Web browser.

Peter Sayer covers open source software, European intellectual property legislation and general technology breaking news for IDG News Service. Send comments and news tips to Peter at peter_sayer@idg.com.

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