Arguments Over the Future of OpenOffice.org

What will become of the popular open source office suite?
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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.

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Tags: open source, Oracle, Apache, Red Hat, OpenOffice.org

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