OpenOffice.org and the Unnecessary Ultimatum

Tuesday Oct 26th 2010 by Bruce Byfield
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A dispute within the OpenOffice leadership team concerning support of The Document Foundation is causing a great internal rift.

Last week, the OpenOffice.org Community Council requested the resignation of members who supported The Document Foundation, the recent fork of the OpenOffice.org project. This week, the results are revealed: resignations of key people, and a growing tendency to choose sides in the community. And the tragedy is that none of this angst seems necessary.

The request follows the recent creation of The Document Foundation (TDF), to provide an independent governing body for the development of the OpenOffice.org (OOo) code, and the announcement of LibreOffice, The Document Foundation's fork of the OpenOffice.org code.

Although The Document Foundation invited Oracle Corporation, the current owners of the OpenOffice.org code after acquiring it earlier this year along with the rest of the assets of Sun Microsystems, to join, Oracle declined. However, Oracle did issue a news release affirming its continued dedication to OpenOffice.org.

Matters came to a head last week during an IRC meeting of the Community Council. Stating that " it is of utmost importance that we do not confuse users and contributors as to what is what, as to the identity of OpenOffice.org," Chair Louis Suarez-Potts described the creation of The Document Foundation as "a plain conflict of interest," he went on to say that, "the point is quite clear. If the TDF members do not disassociate themselves from [The Document Foundation, then they must resign by Tuesday [October 26]."

Considering that five of the eleven Community Council members are members of The Document Foundation, the insistence on their resignation can hardly be anything but disruptive. The four members are Deputy Chair Sophie Gautier; Native Language Representatives Olivier Hallot and Charles-H. Schultz; Community Representative Cor Nouws, and Product Development Representative Christoph Noack.

However, when you add other members of The Document Foundation's steering committee, the potential for self-inflicted injury to OpenOffice.org becomes even more serious. Among the members of the steering committee are Caolan McNamara, a prominent member of the OpenOffice.org Engineer Steering Committee; Florian Effenberger, the Marketing Project Lead, and the project lead for several localizations, including Brazilian, Danish, and German.

As I write, at least one of the steering committee -- Florian Effenberger -- has resigned, even though not called upon to do so. He joins Community Council member Christoh Noack and Charles L. Schulz.

So far, no one has announced that they will resign from The Document Foundation to stay in OpenOffice.org. However, Oracle remains the employee of the majority of OpenOffice.org developers, so, at the coding level, the situation might have little effect. Yet, with an increasing number of people choosing sides, some problems seem likely.

The result just may be a fracturing of the tentative community that OpenOffice.org has managed to create.

Choosing Sides

To anyone who follows OpenOffice.org, the split seems hardly surprising. The uncertainty over Oracle's plans for OpenOffice.org has left at least some community members mistrustful. When The Document Foundation was first announced on the OpenOffice.org Discuss list, one of the first responses was to call upon Oracle to "do the decent thing" and support the foundation.

Even Oracle employee Thomas Lange, writing to contradict the suggestion that no one at Oracle monitored the list, felt obliged to add, "However, most of those who do are in no position to make such decisions."

In this atmosphere, the announcement of The Document Foundation was welcomed, but not uncritically. Recognizing several of the foundation's steering committee as members of Go-OO, a previous splinter group from OpenOffice.org, Cor Nouws cannot help remarking that it "is a tragic quirk of history that people whom I criticized in private and public for the way they acted [towards] OpenOffice.org, are among the first ones that support the long-awaited foundation."

Similarly, Ariel Constenla-Haile, noting that Novell and Red Hat employees are included among The Document Foundation, questions the motives from the group, as well as the fact that how it will be governed is still being determined. From such remarks, it appears that support for The Document Foundation is based more on uncertainty about Oracle than unqualified enthusiasm for the new project.

By contrast, those who continue to support OpenOffice.org most strongly tend to be Oracle employees. For example, developer Malte Timmermann asks, "How can [OpenOffice.org] gain from this? It's not clear to me how contributions to [LibreOffice] will make their way to OpenOffice.org."

Mathias Bauer, a long-time manager of OpenOffice.org development, is even more outspoken. Describing the ultimatum as "a valid request," he suggests that anyone with a leading position in OpenOffice.org who cannot give OpenOffice.org priority should resign. On the whole, the OpenOffice.org supporters seem more hardline and less willing to compromise.

Regardless of whether that appearance is true, accusation and counter-accusation are starting to fly back and forth between these two poles, with some questioning the motives of those behind The Document Foundation and others urging people to give it time to develop, and others attacking Sun's (and, by implication, Oracle's) alleged rejection of code contributions from outside the company, and others trying to dissect the attacks.

Inevitably, too, those with less of a leadership role are taking sides. Under the subject line of "I AM WITH OOo," Ramon Sole writes,

"I don't work for Oracle, and I intend to keep contributing my best effort ot OpenOffice.org. And I'm convinced there's lots of people who don't work for Oracle and they're going to keep in OOo. . . . Anyway, OOo is going to lose some of their members, so I think it's a good time to show that a lot of people who are not going to switch to TDF and we will keep our support with OOo. We need to make clear OpenOffice.org is much more than just Oracle."

Sole's sentiments are echoed by Simon Brouwer, who writes, "The continued success of the OpenOffice.org software is my first concern and at least in the foreseeable future I don't see that happening with TDF." However, in the same thread, just as many have come out in support of The Document Foundation.

In the last month, the fork has come to occupy so much attention on the Discuss list that few other topics have has appeared. The second most popular topic is how Oracle should change its marketing strategies for OpenOffice.org. Even OpenOffice.org's tenth anniversary rated only a few congratulations -- a marked contrast to some previous years.

An Unnecessary Position

What is puzzling about the ultimatum is why anyone thought it necessary in the first place. Traditionally, free software projects do not view each other as competitors. Even when one project is associated with a commercial product, no one sees a conflict of interest in being involved with both. Many Ubuntu contributors continue to be active in Debian, and, although the possibility of a conflict is recognized, if one has occurred, it has not been made public.

So why did OpenOffice.org insist on taking a hard line -- especially when The Document Foundation has repeatedly announced its willingness to work with anyone? The Document Foundation's position may be marketing rhetoric, yet surely it would have been worth testing before doing anything else.

When you consider Oracle's recent filing against Google for supposed patent violations of Java, it appears possible that the ultimatum originated in Oracle, and that the new owner of the code has decided to apply its business tactics to the free software community.

The Document Foundation's actions have certainly been provocative, yet it has done nothing that a free license doesn't allow. By community standards, a more acceptable reaction would have been to acknowledge the right to fork and talk about future cooperation.

Very likely, Oracle has hurt itself in the free software community with this action. The reaction to recent events shows -- if anyone had doubts -- that the corporation has few friends in the free software community to start with. For some, such an action will only confirm their suspicions about Oracle.

Just as important, the immediate effect is to distract the efforts of both the OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice projects, at least temporarily. Those who care about free software in general, and not just individual projects, can only hope that further actions do not hurt the development of the leading free office application even more than it has in this past month.

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