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Open source fans disagree on impact of Oracle's OpenOffice divestiture

Nick Martin

Oracle's decision to hand off source code for OpenOffice.org to the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) last week got a mixed

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response from the open source software community. The move gives hope to some who saw the project languish under Oracle, and worries others who hoped to see a collaboration with The Document Foundation's (TDF) LibreOffice.

Oracle Corp.'s donation of the code marks the end of the company's control over the open source application suite, which began in January 2010 when Oracle completed its acquisition of Sun Microsystems Inc. Soon after that takeover, some analysts questioned Oracle's commitment to the OpenOffice.org project, going so far as to advise organizations against adopting it until they saw a clear direction from Oracle. Oracle's perceived lack of commitment to the project led some key OpenOffice.org developers to split from Oracle in September 2010 to form a new project based on the same code, called LibreOffice.

Some open source community members hoped Oracle would meld the OpenOffice.org project with LibreOffice by donating the code to TDF. Former Microsoft-developer- turned-open-source-software-proponent Keith Curtis wrote an open letter to the ASF, in which he contended that the continued split would be bad for all parties involved--but especially damaging to OpenOffice.org.

In an interview Thursday, Curtis said it wouldn't make sense for ASF to continue working on the OpenOffice.org project when many former OpenOffice developers are now focused on LibreOffice.

"The community has already moved over to LibreOffice," Curits said. "All of the forums and discussion groups have already moved over. Now there's this proposal to bring OpenOffice under the Apache license and recruit developers to work on it there, but anyone who is remotely interested in this project is already committed to LibreOffice. This is a massive disturbance to a young, but existing community. The OpenOffice trademark should be given to LibreOffice and everyone should join that organization, but Apache doesn’t see it that way."

The real risk, Curtis said, is that OpenOffice.org would get little attention from developers and become an outdated husk of LibreOffice–effectively wasting the valuable OpenOffice brand name.

Others couldn’t disagree more. Gregg Rosenberg, owner of RICIS Inc., a systems integrator and service provider specializing in Linux, thinks the split could end up producing two viable products.

"Apache has done some tremendous work, so I don't have any concerns over the product being in trouble during that transition. Personally I'm happy to see it leave Oracle's control," Rosenberg said.

If OpenOffice.org continues to develop under Apache, and LibreOffice drives forward with TDF, customers could get a choice of similar applications–with each version eventually developing its own unique strengths. Even now, some organizations currently using OpenOffice are looking at LibreOffice as an alternative. Howard County Library, in Maryland, has about 500 machines that have run OpenOffice for eight years.

"In general, we have been pleased with [OpenOffice.org] and have found that it has handled most of the library's needs," said Angela Brade, the library's COO. "We use the Ubuntu distribution of the Linux operating system on our public machines and many staff machines. Since Ubuntu is adopting LibreOffice as its default for the future, we are testing [LibreOffice] now for when we roll out the next version of our public and staff computers."

Apache does have some corporate backers, including IBM, which praised Oracle's move and promised to commit resources to help Apache develop the code. IBM will contribute staff resources to collaborate with the Apache community during the project's incubation period, according to an IBM statement. Rosenberg sees IBM's pledge as a plus. Big Blue has "done a tremendous job supporting the open source community in the past," He said.

However, Curtis takes a more cynical view of at IBM's pledge since IBM’s Lotus Symphony is based on OpenOffice code.

"I think IBM's investment in the project will be pretty small, they have a big name though. Those few people they will have working on it will be working on proprietary stuff and not be all that interested in this open source project," Curtis said.


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