October 13, 2004

OpenOffice.org is four years old today; community manager Louis Suarez-Potts talks about the changes

Author: Bruce Byfield

Four years is a long time in software development, and the changes between 2000 and 2004 reflect that. In 2000, OpenOffice.org didn't exist -- only StarOffice, a product that Sun Microsystems had bought in 1999 from the German-based StarDivision, and didn't seem to know what to do with it. Today, OpenOffice.org is the source of Sun's version of StarOffice, but very much a project in its own right. Today's OpenOffice.org has features that the code that was open sourced in 2000 didn't, including automatic installation of dictionaries and fonts, PDF export, and the ability to write plug-ins in Java, Python, and several other programming languages. Louis Suarez-Potts has been community manager of the project since before it was announced. Recently, I talked with him via e-mail about where OpenOffice.org is heading, its relations with the greater open source community, and some of the issues that surround the project in the news.BB: First, let's be clear of what we're talking about. Why do you refer to "OpenOffice.org" when everybody else refers to "Open Office?"

LSP: "Open Office" is trademarked by other companies and entities;. We use, therefore, the awkward "OpenOffice.org." We think, from time, to time, of changing the name. But changing any product name is always a pain.

BB: How did you become involved with OpenOffice.org?

LSP: I was immensely lucky. I had finished my doctorate in 1999 in English and wanted to stay in the Bay Area. CollabNet was looking for a content manager to work on the recently formed but not yet public OpenOffice.org project, so I quit my job as a copywriter for a venture capital firm, and joined in October 2000. It was one of the best moves I've ever made.

OpenOffice.org launched nearly the same day I started work. I had been hired to write articles, interviews, that sort of thing, a combination of marketing and reportage, and maintaining key web pages. But my involvement changed as people outside the outside the world of open source began to recognize the value of OpenOffice.org.

I find that my background has helped. I don't just mean my degree and training in the poetics of culture. I mean also that as a child I traveled a great deal, and lived in Spain, Mexico, Australia, as well as the US. This multicultural, as well as multilingual experience has, I believe, permitted me to comprehend that OpenOffice.org, like much of open source today, is fundamentally international, not American.

BB: What does the Community Manager do?

LSP: My project title is Community Manager. My CollabNet title is Senior Community Development Manager. I'm also the chair of OpenOffice.org's governing body, the Community Council, and the lead or co-lead of several projects, including Distribution, Website, the Native Language Confederation and Incubator project. And I'm the project editor - a very watered down version of a classic magazine editor.

The really important jobs, at this point, are representation and strategy. I represent OpenOffice.org to various groups, with the aim of informing as many as possible what OpenOffice.org is about and how they can make it theirs.

At long last, I might add, we are seeing the public adoption of OpenOffice.org. Novell, for instance, is very public about doing so, and is a strong contributor to the project. We've also seen, again very publicly, government offices taking up OpenOffice.org: Munich, for instance, the city of Largo, Florida, Austin, Texas, and other cities in Germany, and elsewhere. And at OooCon [in September 2004], Christian Hardy, Chief of Information System Departement, Ministère de l'Economie, des Finances et de l'Industrie- Direction de la Prévision and Christophe Cazin, Ingénieur Chargé Stratégie Technique, Ministère de l'Intérieur, de la Sécurité Intérieure et des Libertés Locales, presented on the French administration's adoption of OpenOffice.org.

And strategy? There are a couple parts to this. First, advocating OpenOffice.org is a lot more than getting individuals or even companies to use it. It also entails getting individuals and companies to build it, or to add to it, or to create plug ins. Most open-source projects are predicated on the notion of "if you build it they will come," but it's just not so simple, especially when you are building a product that is widely seen as facing Goliath.

The other part of strategy consists of policy and direction. I propose much of the guiding policy that the OpenOffice.org community uses to keep going. (Success has its price: after 1.0, we had suddenly a fifty thousand members, many wanting to help out. So, we had to set up the political and social infrastructure--fast.)

As to being an administrator: I share this role (and many others) with Stefan Taxhet, the Technical Coordination Manager, who has been with OpenOffice.org since the very beginning.

BB: Looking back, is OpenOffice.org where you thought it would be after four years?

LSP: Yes and no.

Yes, I thought it would be this popular (tens of millions use OpenOffice.org daily). Yes, I thought it would be as important as it is now.

No, I didn't imagine that the project would have nearly 170,000 registered members--who could? But early on we did conceive that the project would host dozens of language and development projects.

But I also thought that we might have a more community engagement in determining the actual direction of the source, its roadmap, and that there might even be a foundation hosting the code. We do now have our newly born Engineering Steering Committee and we do have the Community Council. But we are not about to form a Foundation, at least not in the immediate future.

BB: What has been the greatest surprise over the last four years? The greatest disappointment?

LSP: Your question valences "surprise" as good, so our happiest surprise has doubtless been the amazing success of OpenOffice.org 1.0. When we released 1.0, the curves went exponential, and stayed that way. To be sure, we had done some serious marketing. Zaheda Bhorat, my colleague at Sun, did a great job of organizing us and coordinating work with Sun, as well as following up with the press. But the free application also spoke for itself, and in a week, hundreds of thousands downloaded the code and evidently spread the word. We are still riding the wave produced by that event.

My greatest disappointment? The lack of companies stepping forward to help contribute to the development of the Mac OS X port.

Our Mac OS X build is fantastic, and I use it every day, for articles, presentations, spreadsheets. It never crashes, and it allows me to work with my Linux and Solaris colleagues while maintaining my Mac glow of happiness. It's entirely community built, the work of Ed Peterlin, Dan Williams, Kevin Hendricks, Eric Hoch, Terry Teague, Patrick Luby, and many others (all of whom have day jobs). It runs in X11, in a way that is very elegant and very pleasing to the eye. The job they have done is truly brilliant. The next step is to make the build run natively in Aqua. However, moving to the Aqua interface is an enormous undertaking.

Now, you would think that Mac companies and developers throughout the world would be contacting us left and right wanting to help out. A company could allocate an engineer or two versed in X11 and cocoa, say, and really help. It's a puzzle that they do not step forward more.

So, here is the scoop: Any company is invited to include OpenOffice.org as a front-end application. For instance, Adobe could include it as such and thus enhance its market position. So could Quark. There is no limit. All that we ask is that patches be contributed back to the project.

BB: Recently, there's been a lot of coverage about the SEC filings that revealed that Microsoft had agreed not to involve Sun in any litigation over OpenOffice.org. Many people in the Open Source Community felt that Sun had abandoned OpenOffice.org. How would you respond to these concerns?

LSP: Many analysts have dived into this field since the Seattle Post-Intelligencer broke the story early September. Arguments have gone all over the place. My response now -- weeks after my initial comments -- comes as a reflection. I'd ask readers to investigate: which open-source projects indemnify users and contributors against lawsuits? I'm curious.
Another point is: What defines OpenOffice.org? The filing calls OpenOffice.org "Open office," but what does that refer to? The source from OpenOffice.org's repository (and binaries derived from it)? The application that Linux distributions distribute? Or all? The situation now is that just about anybody can call what she distributes "Open office". The solution to this problem--if it is a problem--is to more narrowly define what is meant by "OpenOffice.org."

BB: Sun's public announcements sometimes seem ambivalent, if not actively hostile to the idea of open source. Have you ever had any conflicts with Sun as a result of this attitude? With other open source projects or communities?

LSP: We have had only support from Sun. We would always like more, but Sun's support has been steady, and we have never had any serious conflict with Sun management.

Sun's comments on open source have, of course, puzzled us, but McNealy and Schwartz have always been supportive. Could Sun do more? Yes. But open source is for Sun, as it is for any enterprise, a business decision. What the open-source movement has to do is make a business case for the things it wants. One has to show how a company will benefit from supporting open source.

Do we have conflict with other projects or communities because of Sun's comments on open source? No. People understand that Sun is the sponsor but not the sum of OpenOffice.org. Sun is a member of the community but the community is not a member of Sun. There is a distinction.

BB: What resources has Sun put into OpenOffice.org? For example, how many people does Sun employ to work on OpenOffice.org?

LSB: Sun has put a lot of resources into the project: it pays CollabNet for the website infrastructure, the management (me), as well as many of the core developers, QA, and translation. I have no good idea how many people are working on OpenOffice.org. Ask Sun that.

As to non-Sun contributors, they number in the thousands, with developers a naturally smaller portion of that. Most of the non-Sun developers work in areas such as localization, porting, as well as extending the application.

BB: Bruce Perens, among others, has voiced the opinion that OpenOffice.org should drop the Joint Copyright Assignment (JCA), the agreement by which contributors agree to share copyright with Sun. This agreement, he argues, discourages contributors. Certainly, in my experience, this statement seems true. Can you explain why the agreement is used, and how it affects the project?

LSP: The JCA assigns copyright of source (or other contributions) to Sun and to the original copyright holder. The JCA does not take your work away. You retain copyright over it.

I am sure that there are some source contributors who have balked at the JCA, as they do not want Sun to hold copyright over their work, even though they retain all rights over it.

For documentation, we use the Public Documentation License, or PDL. (See http://www.openoffice.org/licenses/PDL.html>.) It does not grant copyright to Sun and is easy fairly easy to use, but must be attached per document; the JCA covers all contributions.

For uneditable files, such as articles, interviews, or the like, we ask either public domain or, if that is not feasible, will accept Community Commons license.

Of course, one could have a system where by no assignment is made, and that might work for Linux-like projects, which are definitively rhizomatic and where modules addressing this or that element can come into being regardless of any roadmap. But I don't think it works for a project where you need coordinated work. Many businesses and governments depend on the fact that we have a roadmap that we adhere to. They like our dependability, the fact that they can anticipate what the future holds. So, I don't think the project would be better off without it.

But that leaves open another point: Where can one contribute without using the JCA? Well, there are add ons and plug ins. Not all require source contributions, and any person or organization is free to create add ons and plug ins that enhance OpenOffice.org. We will gladly list any such group on our website.

BB: Microsoft has a standard line that StarOffice/OpenOffice.org is functionally equivalent to MS Office 97. How would you respond?

LSP: They are wrong. Was MS Office 97 able to export any file as a PDF? Export presentations as Macromedia Shockwave Flash files? Was MS 97 using XML for all its files? Functionally, we are leading Microsoft Office.

BB: What about calendaring? That's what people most often say that they miss in OpenOffice.org. Other features that MS Office has that OpenOffice.org doesn't include a grammar checker, on-line collaborative tools, and file locking. Are any of these in OpenOffice.org's future?

LSP: To be sure, these features are not present today in OpenOffice.org. We do have a groupware project (http://groupware.openoffice.org/) which is working on email and calendering. And we have also been in discussion with Mozilla, to see how we can work with them.

The lingucomponent project is working on a grammar checker. (http://lingucomponent.openoffice.org/) If you can help out, help out.

Similarly, the tools you mention: some are in the future, such as collaboration tools. Our core roadmap is fairly set for 2.0, but there is no roadmap for plug ins, and the roadmap for what lies beyond 2.0 is wide open.

BB: In some circles, OpenOffice.org is perceived as being aloof from the rest of the free software/open source community. Why is that? Is the project doing anything to improve this image?

LSP: Really? Aloof? That is not our impression. In fact, we are considered to be spearheading a lot of open source work and establishing OS communities throughout the world.

But perhaps the impression derives from the fact that it is, admittedly, difficult to contribute code to the source. It's difficult for a couple of reasons, not least having to do with the nature of the code. It's also been difficult because our process needed improvement. It took too long for developers to learn of the status of their contributions. Fortunately, we are improving that process. Any contributor should know the status of his or her contribution, and will.

BB: OpenOffice.org has recently announced some joint marketing efforts with Mozilla. Can you describe these efforts, and what you hope they will do for both projects?

LSP: Our goal is to work with other open-source projects. Synergy is better than going it alone, both in development but also in marketing. Mozilla and KDE have also seen this, and our agreement with Mozilla is meant to leverage our respective presences in the world. We hope then that users wanting Mozilla will now be considering OpenOffice.org and vice versa. These include, of course, Windows users, who make up the majority of our download base.

BB: Version 2.0 of OpenOffice.org is due in the spring of 2005. What can we expect in it?

LSP: OpenOffice.org 2.0 is the most important release since 1.0. It's much faster, more modular, has a bunch of new features, a separate database component, and is more interoperable with Microsoft Office.

But these points are not as interesting as the file format, which is an open XML-based file format" approved by the international standards body, OASIS. (See
http://www.oasis-open.org/committees/tc_home.php?wg_abbrev=office.) Any vendor can also use it. KOffice does; others will follow.

Right now, the developer builds are getting closer to being ready for daily (though not naive) use. We urge people to download it and test it; file issues. Let us know what you like and dislike and why.

If you are curious what 2.0 promises, Dmitri Popov has just sent me a link to a review he wrote for PC Stuff (http://www.pcstuff.dk/articles/ooo19m54/index.html). One point Popov mentions: 2.0 is not [currently] backwards compatible, meaning that you can read old files (1.1.x) but not save as such. However, by the time 2.0 is formally released, there will be a patch for OpenOffice.org 1.1.x / SO7.x to enable that code line to read the new file formats.

BB: Version 2.0 has native installers for each operating system. As a Debian user, I can't help noticing that the GNU/Linux downloads of the development builds are available for .rpm only. Is OpenOffice.org going to provide .deb packages as well?

LSP: You mean just for the developer build? (http://download.openoffice.org/680/.) Here (http://installation.openoffice.org/servlets/ReadMsg?list=dev&msgNo=609) are instructions to get it working for Debian. Credit to Clemmitt Sigler.

BB: Recently on the OpenOffice.org Marketing list, you published a slide show that raised the question of whether OpenOffice.org would move its licence from the dual SISSL/LGPL to the GPL. What stage is this suggestion at? What are its pros and cons?

LSP: Sun's Chief Technology Evangelilst Simon Phipps argued at the
recent OOoCon that OpenOfficed.org should consider changing license.
[He did not argue to change to GPL; my error if I confused people
there.] I argued in my presentation that OpenOffice.org should be GPL
and have a commercial license.

Sun, as the copyright holder is the one who ultimately makes the decision on the character of the license. But it is up to the community who works on the code to have a say in it. It is their work. Do I need to emphasize that the community of OpenOffice.org includes the Sun coders?

Right now, as I mentioned in my presentation, there are numerous companies that engage in the open-source economy with OpenOffice.org. They take binaries, distribute them, enhance them, or work on the source, and contribute patches back to the project. Everyone is happy. That's the way the OS economy should work. Thus, Sun, Novell, Propylon, Red Hat and many others are good open source citizens.

But there are also some that take advantage of the licenses and sell binaries, sometimes enhanced, but do not contribute back to the project. For the smaller companies, we have long tolerated it, as our goal was to get the file format out there at all costs. But there are increasingly more of these, and some are much larger than others. We would like for SOT Office, Magyar Office, RedOffice, and numerous others to contribute their enhancements back to OpenOffice.org. We would especially like for IBM, whose Workplace seems, from what I have heard, to be based on, if only partly, OpenOffice.org, to do the same. Instead, right now, we have a mess of small forks and the shadow of a big one. Changing the license to GPL will limit exploitation. it will also situate OpenOffice.org more within the large economy of GPL-coded works.

But there would be drawbacks. For instance, commercial plug in writers would probably balk, thus reducing the extensibility of the application. So there is an option, which I also discussed, to add a commercial license. A commercial plug in writer could thus continue to sell her work, though she would be required to pay a license fee.

But let's say that she also contributes actively to the project. Then, it would make sense to waive that fee, using an equivalence table. Of course, creating such a table is notoriously difficult.

How do I envision this dual license structure working? Say you download OpenOffice.org. Upon installation, you are presented with a choice: commercial or free (GPL). If you choose free, then great, you can use it, enhance it, distribute it, do all the things you normally do with GPL software. You can't, however, include proprietary plug ins or otherwise make the application part of a proprietary object.

If you choose the commercial license, you can do those things; you will just have to pay.

Who would garner the fees? Logically, the copyright holder, in this case, Sun.

BB: What direction do you see OpenOffice.org going after version 2.0?

LSP: Our goal is always to be more robust, faster, more interoperable with all suites. We also want to further the modularization of the code, thus making it easier for developers

But, to me, this is but a start. OpenOffice.org has the potential to be, as it were, etherealized, and sited not on somebody's desk but in cyberspace, as well as to work with a universe of other open source technology. Imagine a true "on-demand" accessible through a browser or even mobile phone; a suite that can be worked on from within a browser, anywhere in the world. With open source there are no limits but there is the challenge to undo the banal world view that monopoly has imposed. With monopoly software, fear, inertia, and the complacency of vast bulk limit what can be done.

BB: Do you have any pet projects or ambitions for the project?

LSP: Yes, I suppose I do: To make OpenOffice.org a tool for users everywhere in the world with which they may not only bridge the digital divide, but go beyond that. OpenOffice.org is free and will remain so for users. It reads and writes MS Office. Governments and corporations, should use it. That way, not only do they save taxpayer money, but if they use OpenOffice.org, they also implicitly give those same taxpayers access to public documents.

Sure, you can do this with PDF, but that means that the user must have a PDF reader, and that works for many. And, you could also just put all documents on the Web. But that can be impractical. You could also save everything to RTF or even text, but again, there are impracticalities. Imagine, for instance, having to fill out a long form with many fields.

Enter OpenOffice.org. It not only can export files as PDF, plain text and, HTML, but also is free, and because the file format is OASIS, will remain so. This is why the Australian government archives have chosen to use OpenOffice.org (even before we moved to OASIS). More governments should follow suit. It costs nothing, it does everything.

BB: What's the best way for someone to get involved with OpenOffice.org? Are there any projects that particularly need recruits? And If someone has a project, how do they go about getting it accepted as part of the project?

LSB: Let's start with the basics. Are you a developer? or do you just wish to contribute art, support, marketing, Web design, etc? Regardless, you should go to our lovely Contributing pages, which Daniel Carrera created(http://www.openoffice.org/contributing.html. )

We recommend that virtually all would-be contributors with any technical skill (okay, you do not need technical skill) start with our QA project. (http://qa.openoffice.org/ ) It's a superb way to learn not only how the project works but who's who, and what there is that really needs doing.

If you are interested in coding, have a look at our to-dos: http://development.openoffice.org/todo.html. They are probably always going to be a little outdated, so it's prudent to go to the relevant project list and ask what there is to do. Our lists are friendly but people are busy. Thus, it helps to be persistent. You should also have a look at Michael Meeks' unofficial Hacker's Guide, as well as our SDK and other material (http://development.openoffice.org/index.html)

Let's say you have a patch you want to contribute. You follow our suggestions and submit it via IssueZilla, our issue and bug tracker. No one pays attention to it, and the weeks pass. The strategy you should follow: get on the mail lists, and make your submission known. Directly find out why it's being ignored. Most likely, it has to do with the fact people are hideously busy. But, continue raising your voice. If nothing happens, contact me.

Suppose you want to start a new project: you want OpenOffice.org to include a new feature. To give an example, David Wilson began the Bibliographic Project because he felt OpenOffice.org needed a sophisticated bibliograhic machine, not unlike EndNote. (http://bibliographic.openoffice.org/). He has managed it quite brilliantly, and has succeeded in drawing developers and university interest to it.

So, if you have a clever idea, start an Incubator project. It's easy. We just check to see that it does not duplicate work already being done and that it is not frivolous. Contact me for details.

Now, let's say you are a non-technical contributor. If you want to work on localization or translation, visit our Native Language Confederation list (http://projects.openoffice.org/native-lang.html) and see if there is a project in the language you want to work on. If you want to do other work, we have support, business development, documentation, marketing, website, projects. These are listed in the Projects pages http://www.openoffice.org/servlets/ProjectList.

We are also working now with secondary and post-secondary schools: with students, teachers, professors. If you are a college or graduate student, and would like to work on OpenOffice.org, contact me; if in high-school, you may want to visit http://marketing.openoffice.org/education/schools/. We think that OpenOffice.org should be thought of as a resource for learning how to code, for learning how to work in a collaborative environment.

In going through these URLs, I realize, again, how large, how complex the project is. But to me, it is in fact a community, a community comprising smaller communities but one that is friendly and engaging. And the work it is doing is good. The people working on the project are creating something that gives enormously to the world while also changing the way work itself is done. OpenOffice.org, the product and the way of working, is where the future is.

For those of you who have gone this far, congratulations. But now let's start.

Click Here!