Digital Britain released this week

Digital Britain, an action plan developed by Stephen Carter, the first Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, might be full of words about innovation, does not do very much for open standards. This is discouraging, since a strong policy on open standards is the prerequisite for sustainable innovation in the digital world.

The concept is mentioned only once. On page 66, the report recommends BBC act more forcibly in this respect, which is about time, given the controversy over their choice of the vendor specific iPlayer (see iPlayer's Wikipedia entry) for their TV online:

Public service organisations can also drive the development of platforms with open standards available to all content providers and device manufacturers alike.

This is included as "Action 20" in the overall recommendations, which is great. I guess this is a strong nod to Erik Huggers, Director, BBC Future Media & Technology, who claims:

the BBC has always been a strong advocate and driver of open industry standards. (BBC Internet blog 12 Aug. 2008)

However, since open standards are likely to decide the future course of the Internet itself and will decide the fate of online content which is now spreading quite freely on top of it, I would have expected a stronger emphasis. Clearly, the challenge of fostering open standards is something all market players, including government, must have in mind when they develop digital strategies in the coming year.

One of the missing dots in this report is the role of the UK government as a procurer of technology and the impetus to ensure that technology follows open standards and does not result in lock-in to particular vendors. As the report's executive summary says:

Government is a major purchaser of digital, knowledge economy services and it uses them increasingly in the wider delivery of public services

Well, I cannot find any reference to open standards. As these recommendations are put into effect, it would be fruitful to have a more mature discussion about how open standards create the necessary strength of the supporting digital platform so that true, sustainable innovation can take place.

The only business model which suffers with more open standards is that of monopoly. Open standards can, in fact, enhance innovation. Digital Britain is nice, but should it not also make economic sense in the long run?

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Trond Undheim, Ph.D, Director of Standards Strategy and Policy at the Oracle Corporation, speaker, entrepreneur, blogger, and author, is one of the world’s leading experts on technology and society. LinkedIn profile

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