Translating Interoperability

A global debate brews over IT standards.

by / November 6, 2007

In today's heterogeneous and global IT marketplace, interoperability - the ability of diverse IT applications or systems to exchange and use information - is increasingly important from a product perspective, with government customers considering it almost as critical as security and reliability. Public CIOs deploy heterogeneous systems that include products from multiple vendors, and want to see these systems work together in a cost-effective way. Fortunately now more than ever, the global IT industry as a whole is operating at a high level of technical interoperability, and is responding to market and customer needs. 


Interoperable by Design
Software that's interoperable by design means it's created with built-in interoperability-enhancing components and features, thereby reducing the need down the road for costly custom development, consulting services, and cumbersome testing and certification to achieve interoperability. 

For example, under the 1985 Schengen Agreement, participating European nations allow open borders, and share visa and law enforcement data. The goal is to support a freer internal market by enabling law-abiding citizens to seamlessly cross from one country to another, while empowering law enforcement to pursue suspects and criminals across borders. Under Schengen, each nation builds and maintains its own IT system, but that system must also communicate with other national systems and a centralized database. In June 2006, work began on building an interoperable technology platform for the next-generation information systems for European border control and visa management. 

Several companies -- including Unisys and Microsoft, which formed a partnership as a result of Schengen -- provide the software building blocks that will enable participating countries to implement the second generation of Europe's Visa Information System and Schengen Information System. This technology will aid in the creation of highly secure, reliable and flexible solutions that can be cost-effectively replicated from nation to nation, with assistance from local IT partners.

Design and development efforts supporting the Schengen Agreement aren't unique, however. Collaboration taking place within the Interoperability Executive Customer Council (consisting of Microsoft's 30 largest global customers and company executives, including CEO Steve Ballmer and Chairman Bill Gates) is another example of broad-based cooperation between a vendor and its customers. The Interop Vendor Alliance - an international consortium of more than 25 vendors - works to identify customer interoperability challenges, then solve and document solutions. IT vendors continue to work with governments on programs, such as the Government Interoperability Initiative and Solution Sharing Network, to provide tools and resources to governments as they develop interoperable solutions.


Brewing Debate
One area in which interoperability is playing out on the global stage today is in the realm of standards. Recently policymakers in several European Union countries and the United States have begun to look at technology issues that impact how government works and serves citizens via improved e-government systems.

Policymakers are focused on ensuring the effective use of technology, including creating, using and archiving government documents. Governments worldwide asked the software industry to help them improve the way they access, use and preserve information across a spectrum of document types and formats. 

Today a debate brews over standards and file formats, namely Open XML and OpenDocument Format (ODF). Open XML document file format promotes customer choice and technical innovation versus having a single file format. There are many choices among file format standards, and limiting customer choice to only ODF would impede CIOs from effectively serving their citizens, picking the best technology for a specific need and managing archived documents. An ODF procurement preference would also drive up governments' costs, and more broadly, chill competition and innovation in the IT ecosystem. (See What Domino Effect for more on this issue.)

Because governments need different technologies to accomplish various tasks (and because many public CIOs already face challenges associated with the deployment of legacy systems from multiple vendors), it's important to foster innovation and choice through neutral and competitive procurement policies. 

While preaching "openness" and support for standards, industry proponents of ODF often try to advance narrow corporate agendas that favor their own offerings and business models. In many cases, the tactic they use is to attack competitive offerings and technologies as "closed" or insufficiently "open" to see if they can draw support for undermining the intellectual property rights of companies that are having success with customers. Simultaneously they vigilantly protect their own intellectual property rights in areas that receive less scrutiny. The motive here is purely a commercial one: an opportunity to sell competitive products or consulting services to governments around the world. At the same time, the two formats - Open XML and ODF - are being bridged through the use of translators and converters, further promoting interoperability. 

Fortunately policymakers are increasingly asking questions about the motives of these companies and their advocacy groups. Ultimately customers should decide what they value most. Public policy should reflect the need to promote innovation broadly and avoid favoring one business model or a narrow segment of the market. 


Incredible Diversity
Should policymakers then create a preference for one standard versus another?  In short, the answer is no. Government wouldn't mandate a single vehicle for all government needs: Heavy trucks, snowplows, passenger vehicles, buses and so on all play different necessary roles in government services. The same is true with file formats. The reality is that many file formats exist to satisfy the incredible diverse needs in software applications. Some document formats are optimized to present a fixed representation of information so that it cannot be changed, ever.

Editable document formats are designed to maximize editability. Other formats, like spreadsheets or page layout formats, are designed to suit the specific needs of software applications and systems. Since each of these features can be necessary given the goals of a specific project, locking in a single file format standard simply makes no sense. Choice among overlapping and even competing file format standards best enable governments to meet their needs, today and into the future, and ensure efficient use of government resources and taxpayer monies.

Customers want to see innovation in the products and services that vendors offer, including interoperability-related technologies. Thus, whether it's sharing data between applications written in different programming languages, or trying to log on across multiple systems, the challenge is to enable technologies to work together without compromising their distinctive underlying capabilities or inhibiting improvements over time.         


Stuart McKee is the U.S. national technology officer of Microsoft Corp. He is responsible for driving a comprehensive set of technical and business strategies for the U.S. public sector, as well as for shaping and articulating Microsoft's technology vision and strategy. Prior to joining Microsoft, McKee was CIO of Washington state, serving as the director of the Department of Information Services.

Stuart McKee Contributing Writer