Arguments Over the Future of OpenOffice.org

Thursday Jun 2nd 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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What will become of the popular open source office suite?

Don't expect Oracle's donation of the code of OpenOffice.org to The Apache Software Foundation to settle anything about the troubled office suite. If the situation does improve, it will be small thanks to Oracle.

According to Oracle, the donation is proof that "Oracle continues to demonstrate its commitment to the developer and open source communities. Donating OpenOffice.org to Apache gives this popular consumer software a mature, open, and well established infrastructure to continue well into the future."

However, from the way that the donation was done, and the situation it leaves the project in, it looks very much like a last spiteful gesture toward the rival Document Foundation, the project that develops LibreOffice, the OpenOffice.org fork. The result is a future that leaves the future as troubled as the present. At the very least, to some observers it appears to show a disdain for the community that borders on arrogance.

The Road to the Present

If that sounds like an over-statement, consider the history. Some of the OpenOffice.org project members were dissatisfied for years with Sun Microsystem's stewardship. When Oracle acquired Sun and its assets in early 2010, the dissatisfaction intensified. Many people pointed to Oracle's lackluster treatment of other free software projects as an indication of what lay in OpenOffice.org's future.

On 28 September, 2010, this dissatisfaction culminated in the creation of The Document Foundation. Organized by employees of Novell, Red Hat, and other corporations involved in OpenOffice.org, The Document Foundation announced a fork called LibreOffice, and immediately attracted a large number of people who had previously worked on OpenOffice.org.

Although The Document Foundation invited Oracle to join its ranks, relations between OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice appeared to deteriorate when Oracle declared involvement in both projects a conflict of interest and insisted that LibreOffice supporters resign from their positions on the OpenOffice.org Community Council.

Almost immediately, The Document Foundation proved it had more momentum than OpenOffice.org, with more discussion and proposals on its mailing lists. Within weeks, major distributions such as Ubuntu were deciding to ship with LibreOffice rather than OpenOffice.org.

Moreover, when OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice both released new software versions in February 2011, LibreOffice's had a slight but definite advantage.

Yet, despite such setbacks, Oracle's previous assertion that it was committed to OpenOffice.org made most people believe that the rivalry would continue indefinitely.

No one predicted that Oracle would simply drop OpenOffice.org and walk away without further comment. Yet that is what happened on April 15, when Oracle announced that it would no longer sell a commercial version of OpenOffice.org, and that the project would become community-based.

At the time, the announcement was greeted with cautious optimism. But, since then, Oracle employees working on OpenOffice.org have been laid off, including long-time community manager Louis Suarez-Potts. Most of the project's mailing lists shut down, and the last development patch was submitted on April 18. For all practical purposes, OpenOffice.org was dead, leaving dozens to wonder what was going on.

The Advantages of the Donation

According to Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, the donation to The Apache Foundation was made with the encouragement of IBM, which develops Lotus Symphony, another OpenOffice.org fork.

From a corporate viewpoint, you can imagine several reasons why the donation makes sense. As an umbrella organization of nearly one hundred projects, The Apache Foundation resembles a corporation more than most free and open source software (FOSS) organizations, no doubt making it easier for Oracle to deal with. It is also well-established and unlikely to disappear, so OpenOffice.org has a permanent home.

Furthermore, Vaughan-Nichols writes that Oracle is contractually obliged to IBM to ensure the continued development of OpenOffice.org. If that is so, then you do not need to be a tactician to understand why Oracle might donate where IBM wanted it to. You might also view the donation as a peace offering after clashes with The Apache Foundation over various issues about Java.

As for the free office suite community, donating to Apache at least superficially satisfies requests that the code be turned over to a neutral, FOSS-friendly organization. Until yesterday, the community was planning to petition Oracle to donate the code (I know, because I drafted the petition), but the donation suddenly makes the effort moot.

All these advantages go a long way towards explaining why the official reaction is positive. Jim Jagielski, president of the Apache Foundation and the mentor for the new project, is quoted in the official release as saying, "We welcome highly-focused, emerging projects from individual contributors, as well as those with robust developer communities, global user bases, and strong corporate backing."

Similarly, when asked to comment, Louis Suarez-Potts, the long-time community manager for OpenOffice.org, wrote to me, "I am delighted that Oracle has chosen to give the code to the Apache Foundation. My hope, and indeed it's something I and others are working to, is that the division and consequent confusion about the identity of the OpenOffice.org community can now resolved."

Even The Document Foundation officially announced that "we welcome Oracle’s donation of code that has previously been proprietary to the Apache Software Foundation." Superficially, at least, everyone sounds pleased about the donation.

Ongoing Problems

So why is the donation less than ideal? One answer is that The Apache Foundation has more experience with projects that involve servers and infrastructure than desktop appliances. If OpenOffice.org is going to thrive, then the Foundation needs to learn, and quickly.

Another reason is that the donation means that most of the OpenOffice.org code is now licensed under the Apache License, rather than the previous GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL). That means that some parts of the existing code are now incompatible with the main license, and may need to be discarded or rewritten.

The difference in licenses also reflects a difference in FOSS cultures, since the Apache License does not prevent the code being used under a proprietary license. For at least some of the OpenOffice.org-LibreOffice community, this license is likely to be objectionable.

However, by far the largest problem is that what the Apache Foundation has been passed is a project with few, if any members. This leaves the situation much as it was with Oracle, with official title to the code controlled by one organization, and most of the development and innovation being done by another -- The Document Foundation.

What makes this development especially unfortunate is that, in the last couple weeks, the members of this joint community have been edging towards reunification.

The mutual distrust between Oracle and The Document Foundation, it appears, was largely on the organizational level. In the community, working relationships seem to have been at least partly preserved.

For example, Louis Suarez-Potts went out of his way to point out that he and Florian Effenberger, a member of The Document Foundation's Steering Committee, work for the same company and have "sought to maintain cordial and even friendly relations since last year." Similarly, Charles-H. Schulz, another member of The Document Foundation's steering committee, emphasizes that "We have here one community and two projects."

True, the Document Foundation has indicated a willingness to work with the Apache Foundation, and states that it has received an email from Jim Jagielski, "who is anticipating frequent contacts between the Apache Software Foundation and The Document Foundation over the next few months." So there is at least the possibility of a diplomatic reunification occurring in the near future.

But, for now, the community's efforts, if not its individuals, remain divided in a way that is harmful to all parties. Schultz tells me that a project on the scale of OpenOffice.org under Sun requires ten million Euros a year. Alternatively, it needs to mobilize volunteer contributors on a massive scale. Yet, even if Apache can find the cash or volunteers, that still means a duplication of efforts that is wasteful and inefficient.

Furthermore, Schultz argues, reunification can only serve the greater good. It would restore confidence among corporate and private users, and remove any uncertainty about Open Document Format, the ISO standard for office files that both LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org offer as an alternative to Microsoft Office's file formats.

Still another problem is branding. Although OpenOffice.org was not as well known as proprietary rivals such as Microsoft Office, over the course of ten years it had developed a certain name recognition. By contrast, in the seven months of its existence, LibreOffice has yet to achieve comparable recognition. In fact, as a new brand, LibreOffice is sometimes regarded with suspicion by users outside the free software community.

Specifically, Schulz argues for reunification under LibreOffice. His argument is that LibreOffice has already proven itself better able to attract community developers than OpenOffice.org ever was. "In seven months, we have attracted twenty times more developers than the OpenOffice.org project, [and] we have extended the number of contributors to a bigger size than the OpenOffice.org project ever had." The strength of this argument only increases when you consider that the Apache version of OpenOffice.org will probably need a month or two to organize, assuming that it become a going concern in the first place.

After the animosity, expecting Oracle to donate anything to The Document Foundation is probably asking too much of human nature. All the same, reunification seems a sensible goal, even if not necessarily under The Document Foundation.

But instead of listening to the community, Oracle has chosen a solution that not only threatens to preserve the existing divisions, but also ignores the wishes of the community by making reunification more difficult. The unsettledness of the solution seems a direct contradiction of Oracle's high-minded statements about supporting FOSS.

Stay Tuned

This story is unfolding rapidly. Rumors are that another twist or two are expected later this week. In addition, another petition is being contemplated by some members of the community -- this time, to The Apache Foundation, requesting that it turn its new assets over to The Document Foundation.

Such a move may not be strictly necessary. It may be enough for Apache to show a willingness to cooperate by joining The Document Foundation. If that happens, efforts would still be duplicated when resources are scarce, but at least some degree of cooperation might happen in a way that was impossible under Oracle.

Maybe then OpenOffice.org could finally be free to become a true community project of the sort that many have dreamed about for years. After Sun's and now Oracle's mismanagement, such an outcome seems long overdue. Let's hope that Apache shows a greater concern for contributors and users than its predecessors.

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