Dienstag, Oktober 19, 2010

Is it a spoon? Is it a fork? No, it's LibreOffice!

The newly founded Document Foundation announced their existence on Tue, 28 Sep 2010. Their first product is LibreOffice, a version of OpenOffice.org, which is released under the LPGL v3+ license.

What are the reasons and -- heatedly discussed -- is this a fork or not? Let me discuss some of the background and give my own layman interpretation of what is happening. Even back in 2008 Michael Meeks was looking at the contributor statistics, finding that Sun-external contributions were comparatively small. In the graph, you see around 30 active Sun Microsystem contributors, and between 4-8 external contributors. That can be interpreted as a sign of tremendous commitment by Sun (which has been significant all the time), or as a failure to mobilize external contributors. After all, this is 4-8 active external contributors when the Office Suite is the killer app next to a web browser and email application for most office workers! I have not checked the development in 2009/2010, but I don't expect that things have looked much different.

Micheal Meeks and others blame that on "enormous groupthink", but also on the fact that Sun, and now Oracle, requires Copyright Assignment for all code contributions, so they can sell proprietary versions of the office suite, while others cannot. This prevents some companies employees from contributing and is a disincentive for many individuals too. (e.g. University employee's code often is automatically copyright to the employer, and they cannot transfer their copyright). Anyway, the end result is that Sun, now Oracle, never played on one level with other contributors, which is what they had promised from the very beginning.

In their original press release on July 2000 , Sun had stated:

[...] In addition, Sun also announced today the new OpenOffice.org Foundation, which will initially be modeled on other successful open source projects and will consist of a project management committee, source code maintainers, and developers. Sun will hold a equal membership position in the OpenOffice.org Foundation project management committee. [...]

That foundation has failed to materialize until today, and so has the equal membership position. As I am not familiar with the core (people and processes) of the Documentfoundation, I can't comment on how it came about, but they announced their existence, emphasizing that they see themselves as part of the OpenOffice.org community, implementing the decade-old promise of Sun of a level playing field, doing away with Copyright assignments, and at the same time, lowering the barrier of entry for prospective developers.

Given the surprise that many showed, the process seems to not have been handled very transparently. Oracle was "invited" to join the new foundation and help to shape it, ideally donating the OpenOffice.org trademark to the foundation, however it seems that there was little discussion going on informing Oracle about specific plans beforehand.

So far so good, the have been 3 (related) contagious issues which are heatedly discussed:

1. Is LibreOffice a fork or rather than the natural further-development of OO.o? As in, the same thing, the same community, with just a different name?
2. Does the OO.o community also represent LibreOffice users, ie can someone be on the bouard of the OO.o community council and at the same time be in the board of the Document Foundation?
3. This leads to a bad fragmentation of the Office suit developers and should be avoided at any price.

As somewhat sensationally reported on Slashdot does the Community Council of the OpenOffice.org project expect people (lengthy IRC meeting minutes here) with a role in Libreoffice to step down due to conflict of interests. Oracle proponents state, that there obviously is a conflict of interest, as the 2 projects were effectively competing now. Most TDF proponents were trying hard to emphasize the fact that the project were not competing, and Oracle were still invited to join, and that there is no conflict of interest as both organizations goals were congruent.

So what is my take on it?

1a. It is a fork, let's get over it. The organization's goals are the same, and the software might be the same, but the means to achieve that are very much different. If this is not a fork than gcc/egcs, xf86/xorg, emacs/xemacs were no forks either. The "but we invited Oracle to join" argument doesn't count, gcc adopted back the egcs code base later as well, and it still was a proper fork. So even if Oracle joins in the fun and starts using LibreOffice as code base, this would have been a fork.

Was this fork necessary? In my opinion yes. As former Chief Open Source Officer at Sun Microsoft put it: "If the company sponsor stands still and the community moves on, who forked?" I sincerely think that Sun/Oracle is holding back the potential that the Office Suite could have. I have the highest respect for those currently involved on the Oracle side of things and I don't think any of them is at fault, but the current OO.o project governance structure is killing of external contributions. Leading to the situation where Oracle has to contribute nearly all of the source code.

Does this mean there can be no cooperation? Heck no, "competing" implementations inspire each other in the FLOSS world all the time, and both project rally around the .odf format. So there is plenty of room to collaborate anyway.

1b. There have been arguments that this belittles Sun/Oracle as a contributor, showing disrespect of the enormous amount of code they put into the code base. The code is certainly huge. Including comments about 8m lines of C++ code and 410k lines of code of Java plus various other stufff sprinkled in. This compares roughly to the whole of the linux kernel which wheighs in at approximately 13m lines of C code (for 2.6.35). But this is a two-sided sword: If Sun were more open, they propbably would not have to contribute all the code themselves. This is a huge project, and having to bear it on ones organization shoulders' is an incredible task, especially when directly and openly competing with Microsoft's office cash cow.

2. As for the conflict of interest, this depends. A conflict with the OO.o community council? Certainly, now that the three indedependent members have been asked to step down, the council will be 100% composed of Oracle employees. That doesn't make these employees and contributors bad or ruthless, but it makes it an enlarged-arm of Oracle, rather than representing the community. There is effectively no independent user community anymore. And with that council, an independent member is certainly at a conflict of interest. Are there conflict or interests with things like http://www.oooauthors.org? I don't think so. The code base is still mostly the same, the UI is still mostly the same, and the templates can be used for both office suites. There should be plenty of collaboration and dual board-membership between those sites. (Dual board memberships are quite common in the business world).

3. Does this lead to Office developer fragmentation? It is true, that the amount of direct code reuse will probably decrease over time as the code bases diverge. But at the same time the current governance style prevented many contributions from being taken, and everyone had to maintain their own little stack of patches, leading to increased fragmentation. Redhat, Debian, all had maintained and applied their own set of patches on top of OO.o. It is also a well-hidden secret that most people using OpenOffice.org on their Linux-desktops were not really using OpenOffice.org but rather http://go-oo.org (wikipedia entry) which collected up to 800 patches on top of vanilla OpenOffice.org. Distributions, such as Debian, Mandriva, openSUSE, Gentoo and Ubuntu have been using some or all of the Go-oo patches for quite some releases. Being able to merge these patches into the proper code base and also integrate those of, say, Redhat, actually might lead to less fragmented development that it had been before.

I wish LibreOffice all the best, and do hope that Oracle joins in the fun as one among equal as the year 2000 press release had promised. The intransparent process and the hot blood that had been shed in the mean time might make that much more difficult and the blame does not squarely lie on one side or the other here, but it would be the logical and correct thing, in my private opinion. Look at Eclipse and the Eclipse foundation for one example how things might work out in the long run. Oracle should get credit for what they have contributed to the free and Open Source world.

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