Is OpenOffice.org (OOo), the popular free office application, "a profoundly sick project," as developer Michael Meeks alleges? Or are his comments a poorly concealed effort to promote Go-OO, Novell's version of OOo, as the anti-Novell lobby suggests?
The answers to these questions are important, because the flame war that continually threatens to erupt over them -- most recently, last week -- could have a direct affect on OOo's future, and OOo is a key part of most efforts to promote a free and open source desktop. The trouble is, nobody in the controversy seems to have hold of the complete truth. As often happens when a question is reduced to either-or polarities, nuanced judgment becomes the first casualty, with none of those who are arguing willing to acknowledge that they could be both right and wrong at the same time.
A history of controversy
Go-OO has existed as an informal collaboration since 2002. However, the controversy over the project and its goal only began 14 months ago when it was officially announced. This first announcement was accompanied by a critique of Sun Microsystem's management of OpenOffice.org that has continued periodically ever since.
In particular, Go-OO contributors such as Meeks and Kohei Yoshida balk at the requirement that the copyright of all code contributed to OOo be assigned to Sun. Other criticisms center on Sun's tight control of the project, which allegedly prevents the development of a healthy FOSS community. Go-OO is supposed to be a project where contributors do not have to abandon the copyright on their code, and they can develop features that Sun -- for reasons good for the corporation but not necessarily the community -- does not care to accept into OOo.
Some of those who object to Go-OO, such as Sun employee Simon Phipps, rebut the project's critique of Sun. However, most objections come from those who have ostracized Novell from the free and open source software (FOSS) community ever since its first deal with Microsoft in November 2006. The objectors focus on Go-OO features ranging from support for VBA for scripts and file import and export for Microsoft Works and OOXML format to the use of the Mono programming language for add-ons. They express concerns that Go-OO is yet another effort by Novell to corrupt FOSS with Microsoft technologies that might be vulnerable to patent claims. For instance, in response to one recent article on Go-OO, a commenter mused, "I wonder if this is really an improvement or an attempt to get mono code integrated into OOo."
In the last month or two, this debate has flared up again. Part of the reason for the renewed debate is probably media coverage that revealed that many distributions, including Debian, openSUSE, and Ubuntu, package Go-OO in preference to OOo itself.
Another reason seems to be Meek's renewal of his critique on his blog. After making a statistical analysis of contributions to the main OOo project, Meeks concludes that not only have Sun's contributions to OOo shrunk in the last four years, but the number of active developers has declined from 70 to 30. He suggests that what is needed is democratic change in the governance of OOo, as well as a distancing of the project from Sun, perhaps through a foundation. Meanwhile, he suggests in a postscript, perhaps developers should consider Go-OO.
By contrast, the anti-Novell lobby sees Go-OO as a fork of OOo, rather than a supplement. The lobby's members condemn Go-OO for not sharing its improvements with the main project, and for criticizing it.
Some lobby members even go so far as to suggest that Go-OO exists for the purpose of advancing Novell's pro-Microsoft agenda. According to this argument, features like support for Mono extensions are part of a long-term campaign to undermine free software by making GNU/Linux distributions that use Go-OO vulnerable to future accusations of patent violations. Supposedly, this tactic is intended to keep OOo from becoming a major challenge to Microsoft Office.
Go-OO truths and exaggerations
The trouble with both these positions is that both contain scraps of truth, but also suffer from serious omissions.
On the one hand, while Meeks' critique of OOo may sound severe to outsiders, anyone who has spent much time in the community would probably agree that the project has serious problems. OOo developers have little contact with the community, and more than one enthusiastic volunteer has drifted away from the project in disillusionment after attempting to contribute. Perhaps the greatest community success has been OOoAuthors -- and it had to organize independently before it was recognized as a useful contribution to the main project. And, on the development level, not only Go-OO, but also OxygenOffice and NeoOffice have also found it easier to accomplish their goals outside the main project.
Nor has Sun or OOo showed much interest in reducing the barriers to participation, the way that Fedora has under Paul Frields. If you spend any time in OOo at all, you are likely to conclude that all major decisions are made by a small circle of Sun developers, and that they like things that way.