Andrew Breese

Musings of a professional geek

Oracle releases control of OpenOffice

It was announced today by ArsTechnica that Oracle has released control of the open source project OpenOffice.org (aka OOo); which is somewhat interesting and moot at the same time. You see the OOo project was split from the main official repository many months ago, as the contributors strongly disliked operating with Oracle in the maintenance of the project. According to Ars Technica the contributors were seeking a vendor neutral alternative (source).

Since that split (called a fork in the source code) into a new project called LibreOffice the project has had effectively two heads. I suspect both entities have been somewhat unhappy with the situation, and the move of Oracle releasing the control (called “discontinue commercial development”) will stir some great discussion in the OOo community.

What I find interesting is pondering the reasons that Oracle might have had to firstly accepting the project, and now letting it go.

Initially the control of an open source project may seem like a huge marketing opportunity. You inherit the code, the goodwill (if any), and some very serious attention from the community which has become your new baby. That kind of makes sense, especially if the ownership was just a by-line in a much larger deal, like Oracle buying Sun. They may not have fully understood the status of the project, or the attitudes and relationships of the communities.

I think there is real potential, but there is also a huge investment needed and this is where the real activity starts to spin up. How much time and money does Oracle give to the project, and for How much return? You can argue all day about the value of publicity, and then be no closer to understanding any part of an ephemeral return on investment formula.

Did the acquisition help the brand?

Probably. It would have allowed them to reach out through media channels and spruce the name. They also gain a product that has real value – OpenOffice is a great tool (imho) and it strikes me as odd that it has such a small footprint in most organisations. Quite possibly I’m too deep in a MS house to be able to see beyond the brightly coloured windows, but the acceptance seems low. I’ve used earlier versions of OpenOffice on a linux laptop and liked it.

The trouble starts when a passionate community decide you’re not doing the best by them. That is the start of something that you can either get on board with (and potentially spend a lot on) or remove all ties from. If it was my choice I’d separate Oracle from OOo straight away too, as I can’t see anything except the potential for misunderstanding. Even if the best intentions are held by everyone, and for all we know they are – it is still a minefield of relationships. How do you tell a coder that their fix (worth many hours, thought, sweat, and coffee breaks) is not being combined into the main project? The quality control needs to be as tight as any other commercial project, but with volunteers as your resource pool. That is a darn tough gig for everyone.

If 99.5% of a community is happy it only takes that last 0.5% to make some very loud noises and sidetrack the activity. There are currently approx 2530 signatures on a website for creating an independent OpenOffice.org, and that means we really are dealing with a dedicated crew of passionate volunteers. If we take the 0.5% as the outspoken few, that is still 12 people who can control the flow of development and community activity, and if those 12 are the core of the community it will change as they see fit. Overnight.

Did Oracle harm their brand by releasing the source now?

Not to me – in fact they did good. I’m glad to see an open source project owned by an open community. This is a good thing all round, and while some folks might be thinking that Oracle has taken a hit on this choice, it is really peanuts compared to the core business. Perhaps they could have handed over the keys to the empire a little sooner, but it would be naive to expect a corporate giant to not consider what it’s options were. A non-commercial entity will not be part of a company’s high priority list of choices and actions, so a 3-6 month gap between major events in Oracle is not unreasonable. All the more reason to let the community drive it.

Live or die very soon the foundation now have all the responsibility and all the kudos for the OpenOffice.org project. In their hands some heavy effort, and no longer will they have the implied backing of one of the largest IT vendors currently out there. It’s another question for the dedicated few to see if LibreOffice is merged with OOo; and you’d think that only one branch would survive; given that OpenOffice certainly has the wider market presence.

It will be interesting to see how much time Oracle now give to the project, and how it handles contributions from its staff toward the effort.

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