For the past month, I've wanted to express an opinion about LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org. However, I've refrained, because I didn't know what to think either way. I still don't, but my conviction is growing into that this uncertainty is worth expressing. Although many people want to see a hero or a villain in events, I'm not convinced that anyone who is involved deserves the uncritical support of the community.
If you follow free software development at all, then you know what's been happening. Mistrusting Oracle's intentions towards OpenOffice.org, a group of developers announced The Document Foundation, an independent organization that is developing an OpenOffice.org fork called LibreOffice. In response, Oracle has declined the invitation to join The Document Foundation, and the OpenOffice.org Community Council has called on its members who are also members of The Document Foundation to resign to avoid a conflict of interest.
In the past week, these events have seen people on the OpenOffice.org Discuss mailing list choosing sides and justifying their reasons for doing so. Only the independent OpenOffice.org Documentation Project has announced a policy of neutrality, inviting writers "to work on other flavours of OOo, should they wish to do so."
Amid these events, I hesitate to take sides, because, so far, all we really have is rhetoric from both sides. The Document Foundation's home page sounds idealistic, but, then, so does Oracle's news release pledging continued support for OpenOffice.org. Both sides have yet to back up the rhetoric with enough actions to make any serious judgment possible.
In this circumstance, I can only judge by past performance, which makes both sides seem less than ideal.
The Oracle back story
On the one hand, although Oracle has been involved in free software for over a decade, it has been unable to gain the community's trust. With its own projects, it has the reputation of being unwilling to relinquish control to the community, and of manipulating community expectations for its own purposes. -- of acting, in other words, how many people in the community are always afraid a large corporation would act.
For instance, while Innobase and Berkeley DB have continued to exist since purchased by Oracle, many suggest that development of both databases has slowed, to keep them from being a threat to Oracle's commercial products.
This is exactly the concern that led Michael (Monty) Widenius, the main writer of MySQL, to be concerned for its future when Oracle acquired MySQL along with OpenOffice.org with its takeover of Sun Microsystems. Although Oracle pledged to keep MySQL alive, Widenius believes that "They will market MySQL as an entry database that you can use until you afford something real," and phase it out after five years. He points to a halving of the Oracle staff working on MySQL as proof of his predictions.
Granted, OpenOffice.org does not compete directly with Oracle's products. Even its Base database does not, because it is a much more basic database. All the same, considering how Oracle has acted elsewhere, skepticism about its plans for OpenOffice.org seems well-founded. The fact that Oracle has yet to match its actions to its rhetoric suggests either it does not understand the community (and may therefore blunder in its future handling of OpenOffice.org) or else it plans to act exactly as people fear (in which case the fear is completely rational).
The morphing of Go-OO into LibreOffice
On the other hand, The Document Foundation does not inspire total trust, either. Judging from the members, particularly founder Michael Meeks -- to say nothing of its motivations and goals -- The Document Foundation is simply Go-OO reborn.
Go-OO is (or was) a semi-independent group of developers, who became impatient with the slow pace of OpenOffice.org development under Sun's development. Several of its members, including Meek, are Novell employees, and the project has been funded by Novell. Since OpenOffice.org did not accept all its code, Go-OO quickly became the version of OpenOffice.org used by many distributions, including Debian and Ubuntu -- which is why Shuttleworth's instant support for The Document Foundation means nothing; in announcing that Ubuntu will ship with Libre Office, he is merely saying that Ubuntu will continue to act as it has in the past.
Over the years, Go-OO has, in fact, introduced enhancements faster than OpenOffice.org. However, "faster" is a relative term, and The Document Foundation's rate of development is unlikely to be that much better than OpenOffice.org's. Similarly, whether Go-OO was a more democratic place for development is hard for an outsider to decide. Even if it was, will a relatively small organization be able to scale successfully to become an independent Foundation? Although Go-OO has made no obvious blunders, it seems only a modest success.
Moreover, Richard Stallman's words of welcome when LibreOffice was announced strike me as ironic. Less than two years ago, other free software supporters (although not Stallman himself, so far as I can tell) were condemning Go-OO as a tool of Novell and the conspiracy to spread the use of Mono.
Now that the cards have been reshuffled, and Oracle is replacing Novell as the company that parts of the community love to hate, The Document Foundation looks better than Go-OO ever did. Yet there is no reason to think that the goals have changed with the name. If you believed that Go-OO has a hidden agenda, then you can believe with equal justification that The Document Foundation has one, too.
A Bluff That Was Called
What happened, I suspect, was that Go-OO, already chafing under Sun's tight control of OpenOffice.org's direction, saw more of the same -- if not worse -- awaiting in Oracle. Hoping to succeed before Oracle could articulate its plans, Go-OO members reinvented themselves, and announced the foundation that they had long been calling for. But Oracle refused to be stampeded, and escalated the fork into something that resembles corporate warfare.
Whatever the merits of either side (and I am most inclined to support The Document Foundation, although only on the principle that any number is greater than zero), I suspect that the losers in this situation will be the users. The risk is that time will continue to be spent in flame wars that could be better spent in coding. What seems likely is not only a general division and duplication of effort, but, in Oracle's case, a decision to focus on proprietary development as a defensive measure. By making the gambit that it did, The Document Foundation may have perpetuated another version of the stalemate that it was trying to break.