Have Oracle just made it worse for everyone?

Have Oracle just made it worse for everyone?


I guess everybody has heard that a majority of the key developers in the OpenOffice.org community decided to set up the Document Foundation: an independent foundation to continue and manage work on the Openoffice.org codebase. If you've not, then I can recommend Terry Hancock's piece as a starting point (and a good summary of why forking is vital). To recap: Oracle are not behind the move so the foundation temporarily named their product LibreOffice. It was not, we were told, a fork. Oracle were invited to the party and asked if they would consider donating the OpenOffice.org brand to the foundation. After the mess with MySQL, here was an opportunity for Oracle to vastly improve relations with the free software community and their own reputation. In short Oracle missed their chance like an English footballer taking a penalty.

According to Steven Vaughn-Nichols an Oracle PR representative has told him in writing that

"With more than 100 million users, we believe OpenOffice.org is the most advanced, most feature-rich open-source implementation and will strongly encourage the OpenOffice community to continue to contribute through www.openoffice.org,"

and

"The beauty of open source is that it can be forked by anyone who chooses, as was done [by The Document Foundation]. Our sincerest goal for OpenOffice is that it becomes more widely used so, if this new foundation will help advance OpenOffice and the Open Document Format (ODF), we wish them the best."

Indeed in a recent press release Oracle committed themselves to the future of OpenOffice.org; although I note their increased reference to their commitment to open standards rather than open source or -- heaven forbid -- free software. This of course neatly gives them the opportunity to further develop proprietary software that supports open standards. Of course adherence to open standards is a good thing but locking them within proprietary software is akin to Android being locked down by mobile networks.

Fork handles

So LibreOffice is now officially a fork and it seems Oracle has just shot itself in the other foot

So LibreOffice is now officially a fork and it seems Oracle has just shot itself in the other foot. Or has it? OpenOffice.org is free software and must remain so. I suspect OpenOffice.org will continue to see significant usage figures and particularly will continue to be found in GNU/Linux distributions for the near future at least. But there are two things Oracle must not do to ensure that remains. First do not try to con the users. Don't try to sneak proprietary licencing in on the back on OpenOffice.org -- so no tying it in with a proprietary database or library. Second listen to your users. Develop OpenOffice.org further into the product the users want it to be. If you do either of those things, you should be aware that LibreOffice will not, and the users will leave you in floods. Personally, given Oracle's track-record I would imagine that this time next year we'll be saying "OpenOffice.org, the predecessor of LibreOffice".

Oracle's need to make sure that they don't hang onto OpenOffice.org too tightly or they will find they are squeezing a balloon that is not tied up

As Terry pointed out, forking is part of free software culture. Oracle must learn from history or its product will not survive. Look at other forked products where the significant reason for forking was licencing. How many people use StarOffice now, and of those, how many are corporates looking for some kind of mis-guided reassurance? What about XFree86? This is not the same issue of course, because as yet Oracle have not closed or attempted to shackle OpenOffice.org. This is a fork based on direction of development, not differing licences; so maybe we'll be okay here. But it is also based upon a significant difference of philosophy. The "it's ours and we'll hang onto it at all costs" philosophy of Oracle and the more traditional free-culture philosophy which says it's not good for one individual or company to wield ultimate power of a community project. Oracle's philosophy is rooted in the old proprietary way of doing things. They need to make sure that they don't try to hang onto OpenOffice.org too tightly or they will find they are squeezing a balloon that is not tied up.

The future

What Oracle have just done is put their fingers in their ears and say La La La to their critics

The worst thing about this move by Oracle is that it will divide a community that didn't need to be divided. The free software community thrives on forked projects and will actively take the path of greater freedom. Mambo became Joomla, Xfree86 has all but disappeared and StarOffice is now regarded as the less-free cousin of OpenOffice.org (and not in a good way). What Oracle have just done is put their fingers in their ears and say "la la la" to their critics from within the free software community. With that move they will recruit several more opponents. I'm not one of them but I'm not a supporter either. Like many, I am interested in freedom in my software and Oracle's refusal to get involved with the Document Foundation has not aided any statement they may make about supporting similar ideals. To compound the split a recent (14 Oct 2010) OpenOffice.org Community Council meeting resolved that those members who are also now part of the Document Foundation should leave OpenOffice.org with reasons of "conflict of interest" given. This makes some sense in a commercial environment, but free software development is not a commercial environment in the same sense. Consider that so-called rivals (Redhat, Novell, IBM etc.) have been working together in the OpenOffice.org community for years now, and yet only now is conflict of interest brought up. It's not good, and whilst I'm not sure I agree that this particular move is a diktat by Oracle, I think it hasn't helped their reputation nor that of a key free software product.

The bottom line is that in all of this Oracle had golden opportunity after golden opportunity to make real progress for everyone - not just the OpenOffice.org or the free software community. They could have been the key player and the biggest part of the most popular free software office suite and they treated it like a runny nose. They blew it. Yes people will follow the OpenOffice.org name to begin with but as word gets around and -- if many people's suspicions are correct -- Oracle's support begins to fade, expect LibreOffice to become that office suite.

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Ryan Cartwright heads up Equitas IT Solutions who offer fair, quality and free software based solutions to the voluntary and community (non-profit) and SME sectors in the UK. He is a long-term free software user, developer and advocate. You can find him on Twitter and Identi.ca.