Friday, July 31, 2009

Battle for multi-billion dollar e-governance projects hots up

New Delhi: The battle over standards for the multi-billion dollar e-governance projects is once again hotting up. IT majors like IBM, Sun Microsystems and Red Hat have shot letters to industry bodies — Nasscom (for software) and MAIT (for hardware) — and the Department of Information Technology (DIT), protesting over the inclusion of clauses which allow for ‘multiple standards’ and ‘royalty on software’ versus a ‘single’ standard and ‘free’ software.At the second meeting of the apex body on standards for e-governance held on June 17 this year, all the members approved Unicode 5.1.0 as a standard for e-governance applications for all 22 Indian languages (except Kashmiri). They also approved the Open Type Font as a mandatory standard for e-governance applications. With regard to metadata (name, age, sex, etc. for land records and the like) and data standards, too, there was a consensus.However, it was on the draft policy on ‘Open Standards’ that the differences emerged. While Nasscom presented that ‘multiple’ standards should be allowed, Secretary DIT, R Chandrasekhar, himself pointed out that “complete interoperability could possibly be achieved through single standard.” However, he added that the “…possibility of ensuring the same through multiple standards can also be considered in consultation with Industry.”Nasscom and MAIT were to get back with industry feedback on this subject by July 7-8 which they did. But players like IBM and Sun are not happy. Insisting that they do not subscribe to Nasscom’s views on the subject, they have put on record that they were not consulted by the software body before it presented its view to the government.“Sun Microsystems believes the Draft Policy on e-Governance Standards, ver 2.0 is an extremely well drafted policy evolved by the government and the policy will help save valuable tax payer’s money from being wasted and in creating sustainable e-governance assets...Specifically, we believe that adopting multiple standards in any way will greatly damage the critical e-governance infrastructure of the country and would also increase its vulnerability. We also believe that adopting standards that are not Royalty free will compromise the technological sovereignty of the nation....Sun Microsystems was not consulted by Nasscom before presenting its view on the Draft Policy on e-Governance standards,” stated Jaijit Bhattacharya, country director, Government Strategy (Asia South and India), Sun Microsystems India, in a letter addressed to Nasscom President Som Mittal.Ashish Gautam, country leader (open standards), IBM India, confirmed the same and said: “We have written to the DIT, expressing our concern on these suggestions.”Venkatesh Hariharan, corporate affairs director, Red Hat, too, asserted that his company was not consulted, adding: “...We do not support the recommendations of Nasscom...since standards should belong to humanity and not be controlled or owned by anyone. In the physical world, we do not pay for using standards like weights and measures...In order to protect India’s digital sovereignty, we must ensure that national data is stored in formats that are open and free of all encumbrances like royalties, patent claims etc. The government is the custodian of data that belongs to the citizens of India. It must therefore ensure that this data is not stored in formats that are owned and controlled by anyone.”Vinnie Mehta, executive director, MAIT, when contacted, said: “We are in the process of consulting our members, and will soon come up with a well thought-out stance.” The e-governance apex committee is expected to meet shortly.The draft ‘Open Standards’ policy for e-governance has been in the works for the last two years and several public consultations have been held on this subject. The two recommendations — one of royalty under ‘reasonable and Non Discriminatory (RAND)’ terms and multiple standards —- if accepted, will lead to multiple, proprietary standards, argue these companies. Egovernment data like land records, etc., these companies point out, remain relevant for hundreds of years. If this data is stored in proprietary formats, it will prove expensive for the country in the long-term, and unnecessarily end up gobbling tax payers’ money (if royalty has to be paid).Incidentally, there has never been a more intense global industry debate over ‘open standards’. On the one hand is Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) file format backed by Apple, Novell, Wipro, Infosys, TCS, and Nasscom. On the other is the Open Document Format (ODF), supported by the likes of IBM, Sun Microsystems, Red Hat, Google, the Department of Information Technology (DIT), National Informatics Centre (NIC), CDAC, IIT-Mumbai and IIM-Ahmedabad.India recently maintained its earlier stance of “No” to the software major’s OOXML (which has been accepted by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) as an international standard).ODF proponents oppose OOXML on the grounds that “multiple standards” are not good, while Microsoft argues that OOXML — a recognised standard by ECMA International too — is a response to evolving technology formats in line with continual evolving technology systems. The debate appears to be a proxy for product competition in the marketplace, argue opponents. It is significant, in part, because it will influence the future success of Microsoft Office — one of Microsoft’s largest and most profitable product families.Governments are wary of holding digital data in proprietary formats, which could make them hostage to a software vendor. States such as Delhi, Kerala and others from the North-East are heavy adopters of ODF file formats which are open and free (excluding maintenance and support).

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