October 8, 2007

Novell is not forking OpenOffice

Author: Bruce Byfield

From recent media reports, casual readers could easily believe that OpenOffice.org, the popular free office suite, is fragmenting. Slashdot reported last week that Novell is backing an official fork, while Ars Technica suggested that if what was happening fell short of a fork, then it was still "serious fragmentation" and "not a good thing for the OpenOffice.org community." However, a closer look at the situation shows that what is happening is less of a dramatic split than the airing of long-time grievances and the media's discovery of a long-established institution.

The alarm first arose when developer Michael Meeks made a series of blog posts about how Sun Microsystem's control of OpenOffice.org is supposedly stifling the development of a community around the project. It was followed by a blog post by Kohei Yoshida about how he had refused to sign joint copyright to Sun for his calc-solver module, and how Sun was consequently going to try to duplicate his work itself.

Both Meeks and Kohei are well-known OpenOffice.org contributors, and both work for Novell. Consequently, when Meeks mentioned that the go-oo.org site would start providing its own builds of OpenOffice.org, rumors of a Novell-backed fork began to fly. The reality, however, is less dramatic than the reports.

The critique

When you actually read or listen to Meek's critique, it sounds surprisingly mild to have created such a stir.

According to Meeks, Novell is not stopping cooperation with Sun. "We contribute more than half our code to what we see as the core of OpenOffice," Meek says, referring to bug-fixes and revisions of existing applications and subsystems. He also acknowledges that, recently, "Sun has really been improving how they deal with the community," citing such improvements as an engineering steering committee that he says has resulted in "much faster patch turnarounds. So, on one level, that's really encouraging."

What concerns Meeks is that Sun's wish to control the project, in particular through the joint copyright assignment, is increasingly at odds with what is best for OpenOffice.org. "The thing that's changed is that there are other pieces of code now that are written entirely outside Sun -- to which Sun has not contributed a single line," Meek says. "And we'd like to see these included in OpenOffice." Yet, under the current project organization, these pieces must remain outside the project.

Meeks mentions in passing that this situation is detrimental to the end user, but his greatest concern is for the developers who wish to contribute. "It's a tragedy," Meeks says, "because for an individual developer, it's all about glory at some level. And to have invested a lot of your life in something, and now to be told that you must give it to Sun, or it's not coming into OpenOffice (which, very bluntly, is the message) -- that's a bit upsetting." To Meeks, it seems especially hard that such an issue should arise after all the difficulties that an individual faces in building and patching such a large piece of code as OpenOffice.org, or that the project should be forced to waste resources in duplicating existing efforts simply because Sun is attempting to retain control.

Besides the engineering problems that the situation creates, Meeks also suggests that the situation hinders the creation of an OpenOffice.org community. "There's got to be some protection for weaker parties and for people who are individuals and don't have Sun's weight," he says.

Not only that, but creating a sense of involvement becomes difficult with such a power imbalance. Recalling his work on GNOME, Meeks remembers that, "in some cases, you saw people switch companies and continue doing the same work." By contrast, he says, "I tend not to feel like I belong to OpenOffice, because it is so dominated by this one entity that it's hard to feel that it's a thing to which you own allegiance that goes beyond your corporate affiliation, you know?"

Meeks does not expect miracles. "Everything's broken at some level," he says. Still, he adds, "I'd like to see a meritocracy, some sort of foundation, with a functioning government that actually controls and owns the code. There's something to be said for unified code ownership, and I would not feel bad assigning my code to a foundation."

Meanwhile, to help compensate for the official inefficiencies, Meeks is using the go-oo.org site as a clearinghouse for OpenOffice.org code that is not assigned to Sun.

The same old stories

Aside from the focus on developers, little of Meeks' comments are exactly new. The issue of copyright assignment has been with OpenOffice.org from the beginning of the project. Although as of August 22, 827 people had signed a joint copyright agreement with Sun, a search through the archives of the project's mailing list shows that others have balked at the requirement. Only last year, the requirement caused serious delays and organizational problems with the template contest sponsored by Worldlabel.com -- and still, apparently, prevents the winning entries from being shipped as part of OpenOffice.org.

Similarly, Sun's domination of OpenOffice.org has also been a constant source of contention. For many, the question of whether community manager Louis Suarez-Potts, who is technically employed by CollabNet, is in charge of the project or only coordinates non-Sun volunteers remains unclear. More than one office-holding volunteer has resigned in frustration over the issue.

Sun's domination of the project has also been at least partially responsible for such parallel organizations as the Open Document Format Alliance, which promotes the use of OpenOffice.org's default format; OxygenOffice, an enhanced version of OpenOffice.org; and NeoOffice, a native build of OpenOffice.org for Mac OS X. All these groups continue to interact with the main OpenOffice.org project, although with occasional conflict.

A case in point is the OOoAuthors Project. According to contributor Jean Hollis Weber, OOoAuthors came into existence "because of difficulties getting things done within the main structure of OpenOffice.org. The main problems at the time were the difficulty of using the Issue Tracker system for documentation, and the fact that any documents that were produced did not get published the Documentation Project's Web site in a timely manner." Rather than go through official project channels, OOoAuthors members chose to develop their documentation independently before contributing it. The arrangement creates its own share of tensions, but, according to Weber, the situation has eased considerably in the last half year, since Sun began devoting more attention to OpenOffice.org documentation, and cooperation is now more commonplace.

Against this background, all that is new in Meeks' and Yoshida's comments is their articulateness and the exposure that they have received. The main addition is Meeks' suggestion that, while Sun's ownership may have made sense in the first years of the project, with the growing interest in OpenOffice.org, "it seems increasingly unreasonable that one company should own the whole OpenOffice process."

In fact, even the go-oo.org site is far from new. It was actually begun in 2002 as a collaboration between Novell, Mandriva, and individual developers such as Meeks and Rene Engelhard, a Debian maintainer for OpenOffice.org, to provide services for developers that the main project did not provide, including search tools for the source code and a wiki guide to compiling OpenOffice.org. The site also became a clearing house for code that had not been added to the main project. "But we didn't make a lot of noise about it," Meeks says, and most of those outside the OpenOffice.org community were unaware of the group's existence.

All that has changed recently is that, after a couple of years of being moribund, the go-oo.org site was redesigned, and plans to start providing its own builds, including, for the first time, ones for Windows. The intent, clearly, is to provide parallel contributions to OpenOffice.org in the same way that so many other groups have done.

The reception

This background helps to explain why, within the greater OpenOffice.org community, the response to Meeks' and Yoshida's comments has been muted. For instance, Sun employee Simon Phipps, also a long-time OpenOffice.org contributor, blogs that he is "aware as anyone that it has had some historic issues with its contribution processes." He finds Meeks' comments poorly timed, citing recent efforts by Sun to change the governance and operations of the project, yet writes that Meeks has "been challenging Sun in a creative way." Although he fails to resist pointing out that Meeks had no problem with joint copyright assignment until recently, and suggests that Meeks has been looking for a reason to challenge Sun, his critique of Meeks' comments might seem surprisingly good-natured for those who only knew about the issues from the media. In fact, they could be taken as an overture for the dialogue that Meeks apparently hopes to start.

In other words, Meeks' comments seem less a declaration of independence than a renewal of longstanding internal disputes within the OpenOffice.org community. Asked by Linux.com whether recent events constituted a fork, Meeks replied firmly, "Novell is not forking OpenOffice. It's that simply. We're working closely with OpenOffice; I spent most of the day working on code that will go into the general OpenOffice. If it's a fork, then we're working on both sides of the fork. The punchline is that we're still heavily invested in OpenOffice, we're still working with Sun, and there's still projects on which we're working jointly with Sun."


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