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Sun: Let My Office Suite Go!

Nearly a year ago I took a shot in the dark predicting improvements in OpenOffice.org thanks to the Microsoft/Novell alliance, and Novell releasing a solid Evolution for Windows, as well as a Windows version of the Novell build of OpenOffice.org, with improved filters and usability features. About half of it came true.

Nearly a year ago in this column (December 2006, “Penguin Prophecies“) I made a prediction that was essentially a shot in the dark: “in 2007, OpenOffice.org (OOo) gets even better with the Microsoft/Novell alliance, and Novell will release a solid Evolution for Windows, as well as a Windows version of the Novell build of OpenOffice.org, with improved filters and usability features. The releases cause a ripple, paving the way for Linux desktop use and acclimating end-users with an alternative productivity platform.”

Okay, I don’t fashion myself as some sort of overweight open source Nostradamus from New Jersey, but half of that prediction came true. The Windows port of Evolution, released in the summer of 2006, is still very buggy, and an installable release hasn’t been updated in nine months as of this writing. However, back in October, the Novell build of OpenOffice.org, under the auspices of Go-OO.org (a Novell sponsored Web site) was also released, on both Linux and Windows. The thing is, it just didn’t happen for the reasons I thought it would.

See, I thought Novell was going to do this just for the sake of competing with Sun, and for providing an alternative version for people who wanted it. As it turned out, it was done because Sun, who fully controls the OpenOffice.org project, didn’t want to accept Novell’s Linear Model Solver code for Calc, which is released under the Lesser GNU General Public License (LGPL) — the same license OpenOffice.org is licensed under. Sun then wanted to re-implement the Novell coder’s two years of hard work for no logical reason.

As it turns out, there’s a whole bunch of other code and modifications that Novell released under LGPL that Sun hasn’t accepted into OOo — so Novell decided to release its own version that it packages with SLED 10 and maintain its own Web site and community for it. In other words, a fork.

All of this could have been avoided if OpenOffice.org was run like a true community concern and became a Not-For-Profit foundation, much like its brethren at Debian, Apache, and Eclipse.

It’s even more important that this be done now, because IBM has committed programmers to OpenOffice.org, and will be using OOo code as the basis of its Lotus Symphony product. Only a true not-for-profit foundation, which would include an elected board of directors, an advisory board and properly established set of guiding principles and management guidelines, would truly allow all vendors equal access to the project and commits to the upstream source.

While IBM, Sun, and Novell (who is still contributing directly to the project on a best effort basis despite the very public slap in the face) are the only three major vendors involved right now, it’s conceivable there will be more in the future. Who knows? Maybe Apple, HP, or even Microsoft will want to pitch code in, and they too will be at Sun’s mercy until the project is foundational-ized and a rational meritocracy is imposed.

We also need a foundation because of OOo’s increasing dependency on Java. OOo has a lot of Java dependencies, and all signs point to more on the way. At the moment, if you download OpenOffice.org for a fressh install, you need a Java Virtual Machine (JVM). As of the 2.3 release, OOo uses a Java-based installer and requires Java to make its OOo database program work (a requirement since 2.0), among other things. If you don’t have a JVM already installed on your computer, the OpenOffice.org distro is conveniently bundled with Sun’s.

For reasons unknown at the time of this writing, IBM and OpenOffice.org haven’t made IBM’s J9 available as an alternative. And, even though Sun has started releasing Java under the GPLv2, the current Java implementation has quite a way to go until it’s fully “free as in freedom.”

Presumably, one day soon, we’ll see a free JVM. Maybe we’ll see a whole bunch of JVMs, optimized and tweaked by different projects. But, will Sun force us to use their JVM instead? Will IBM be allowed to provide theirs on the OpenOffice.org site? What about all the third party embedded JVMs? With Sun alone pulling the strings at OpenOffice.org, these types of questions will always linger and create friction among the open source community.

Now, I’m no communist. I think that the vendors who put in the most amount of work into open source projects should reap the rewards from their community participation. That’s only fair. Certainly, with StarOffice and Lotus Symphony, both of these products are likely to translate into real dollars for their respective companies.

But, if open source software is really supposed to be free, well, then these vendors not only have to walk the walk and talk the talk just for their own purposes and benefit, but also because of the responsibility they have to the community at large, and that includes open access to large projects such as OpenOffice.org.

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