There’s been little question, for a long time now, that the free-and-open-source office suite OpenOffice.org (or OO.o) has been stagnating. It’s a grand and daring project that’s been choking on its own inertia for too long.
The good news is that some fresh blood may finally be entering its veins, in the form of the Document Foundation creating their own branch of OO.o: LibreOffice. What’s less clear is whether or not they will simply repeat the mistakes of the past.
I myself in these pages penned a farewell letter to OO.o in favor of Microsoft Office 2010, mostly out of practicality. I haven’t summarily decided that I’ll never use OO.o again—I’m always willing to give future iterations of the program a chance—but I see now that a great deal of work needs to be done with it, both as a program and as a project.
I say these things not out of contempt for OO.o, but because I want to see it improved—and real improvement is often painful and difficult.
So here’s my take on what needs to be done with OO.o to make it competitive.
Make it easier to contribute—and make it open core
More than anything else I’ve heard, the biggest complaint about OO.o as an open source project is how difficult it’s been historically to get contributions accepted from outside Sun.
Most of the work done on OO.o was internal to the company, and a big reason for that was the politics of the submissions system. Back in 2008 Michael Meeks of Novell recommended that to prevent further stagnation, Sun needed to "kill the ossified, paralysed and gerrymandered political system in OO.o." The company need to “put the developers (all of them), and those actively contributing into the driving seat.”
The process of getting code included, he wrote, was “horribly demotivating and dysfunctional”. So much so, from my perspective, that developers were resorting to the most extreme solution possible—forking the entire code base (e.g., Go-OO, and now LibreOffice) and adding their own improvements there, rather than deal with Sun at all.
It’s all too clear that the management of the project has been one of its own worst enemies. How Oracle or the Document Foundation choose to deal with this is entirely up to them, but I’m with a number of others—including Meeks—who suggested that the project should be spun off into its own, self-sustaining foundation a la Mozilla.
There’s another question that comes up, which I find more pressing than the question of governance. Is it even possible to take a project of the scope and dimensions of OO.o, and make it a competitive product while also keeping it entirely open source?
This is where I break ranks and suggest something many people are not going to like: OO.o should, for the sake of its own future as a project and a product, adopt an open core strategy. Give away the basic version of the product, and sell closed-source, differently-licensed add-ons that people are willing to pay for.
If that turns out to be a direct and efficient way to fund development of the project and bring more open source development into its fold from the outside, then I for one wouldn’t flinch from that.
If my roster of added functionality bits—e.g., a robust, context-sensitive grammar and spelling checker—came to $40 a piece, I could buy four such add-ons and still be coming in at less than the cost of Microsoft Office in its current incarnation. And all that money would be going right back into OO.o development. (Perhaps older versions of the add-ons in question could be released under a more permissive license, with the for-pay versions being the newest and most valuable.)