Questioning the future of OpenOffice.org and ODF

Uncertainty about the fate of OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and the ODF. Are solutions at hand?

There's a time for answers, and a time for questions.

Last month's announcement from Oracle that it would be discontinuing commercial development on OpenOffice.org definitely means it's time for questions, a broader one being "what the heck does Oracle's announcement mean?"

For now, the status of OpenOffice.org is in a bit of limbo: work on OpenOffice.org 3.4 continues at the Hamburg offices where much of the core OpenOffice.org development takes place. At this moment, despite a few rumors that proved to be wrong, those developers are all still gainfully employed by Oracle. This may be a deliberate decision on Oracle's part, or the fact that German hiring laws are different than those in the US, and don't typically permit immediate layoffs. But beyond that, there is very little known about Oracle's exact plans for OpenOffice.org.

But the question goes beyond even the future of OpenOffice.org. With the Attachmate acquisition of Novell and the subsequent reorganization of the Mono project, now there are questions being raised about the longevity of the LibreOffice developers who work inside Novell. Thus far, there are no indications (positive or negative) about the fate of Novell's LibreOffice team, but the uncertainty of over Novell's continued work on LibreOffice brings up an even broader question, one that focuses not on the applications in the OpenOffice.org ecosystem, but the underlying technology:

What is the future of the Open Document Format marketplace?

That's the question that's preying on Louis Suárez-Potts' mind these days. Suárez-Potts, who left Oracle in February, still maintains the volunteer position of Community Manager and Chair of the Community Council for OpenOffice.org, which means he has a very vested interest in being concerned about what Oracle might be thinking when it comes to OpenOffice.org.

The biggest hurdle, for now, is the fact that even though Oracle's Chief Corporate Architect Ed Screvens stated that "[Oracle intends] to begin working immediately with community members to further the continued success of [OpenOffice.org]," no one knows what that means. Oracle is still paying for development of OpenOffice.org, but they also hold the trademark and copyrights for OpenOffice.org.

How does that affect the ongoing development of the code? And not just the base OpenOffice.org project, but also LibreOffice and IBM's Symphony, also based on OpenOffice.org code? It's not just the end users that should be concerned. Novell, Red Hat, and Canonical each have a strong interest the success of LibreOffice, since it lies at the heart of their respective commercial distributions. And you can bet IBM, having poured millions of dollars into OpenOffice.org and ODF development, is more than a little interested in what Oracle's OpenOffice.org plans are.

There's even more. "Asian companies such as China's RedOffice, as well as others, like Japan's Good-Day, Inc., to name but one. Haansoft of Korea has also come to adopt the ODF per government mandate, and I'm not even listing those national and subnational governments that have mandated use of the ODF, just the companies with vested interests," Suárez-Potts outlined.

And right away this information should give you an idea of what's at stake here. OpenOffice.org isn't just some little backwater office suite knockoff made just for those free-minded Linux geeks (despite what Microsoft would have you believe). There are vendors with millions of dollars of time and personnel invested in making OpenOffice.org and its derivative products succeed. Because the marketplace for OpenOffice.org products is growing, and growing fast.

For Suárez-Potts, it's not just about OpenOffice.org. It's the Open Document Format (ODF) that's the real driver of the marketplace. The ODF, Suárez-Potts maintains, is very attractive feature for both private- and public-sector customers.

"People like the ODF simply because of its enormously successful flexibility," Suárez-Potts said in a conversation this week. Suárez-Potts repeatedly emphasized that it's the file format that is the key here. The ODF is at the heart of an ecosystem that represents tens of millions of users, according to Suárez-Potts. OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice, Symphony, and even Google Docs are just the outward applications that use ODF, but they are not the true core.

A scientific analogy could be the recent theories in biology that speculate that life on this planet is really just an ends to a means--the means being the continued survival of DNA molecules. Everything else--hair, muscles, leaves, wings--is just a survival tactic so DNA can reproduce.

So too, then, are the applications that use ODF files. They are the tools with which we use ODF, and without them, the ODF would not survive. Think about it for a moment: if OpenOffice.org suddenly started to use just .DOCX formatted files, would OpenOffice.org be hurt just as an application (never mind about the political hue and cry)? No, it really wouldn't. Now flip that: would ODF be hurt as a format if there were one less application using ODF? Yes, it would.

This is why Suárez-Potts is concerned. Yes, he wants OpenOffice.org to succeed--anyone who's put in tens of thousands of hours on a project would always want that--but more importantly, Suárez-Potts wants ODF to live on. The recent uncertainties surrounding OOo and LibreOffice raise important questions about the ODF market, which for all its size and strenght is also fragile. Of course, Suárez-Potts would be the first to underscore that Oracle has not been alone in developing the ODF or OpenOffice.org. IBM, for example, has long been a strong partner in developing the ODF and in helping other companies and projects work with it.

You might be wondering why LibreOffice would be in trouble, even if Novell/Attachmate did decide to drop LibreOffice development. It's really not a sure thing, but that again is another question: how many resources are currently assigned to work on LibreOffice? And I'm not talking contributors--I'm talking about core developers who are working on evolving LibreOffice past the upstream OpenOffice.org features. There's the team at Novell, but then who? How many people from Red hat are involved? Or Canonical? IBM?

Reaching out farther, is anyone from the Document Foundation working on core development full-time? It is not clear if the Document Foundation is even set up as the kind of non-profit that can hire developers, even if it wanted to.

This lack of transparency about the resources tasked to work on LibreOffice means that enterprise customers may have some real questions about deploying LibreOffice--questions that the Document Foundation and any LibreOffice-distributing vendor had better be prepared to answer. The same concerns hold true for Oracle as well: transparency about their plans for OpenOffice.org are critical to maintaining developer and user confidence in OpenOffice.org.

Suárez-Potts sees two potential paths out of the OpenOffice.org dilemma, both with the same start: Oracle could release the OpenOffice.org project completely to a new or existing foundation, in much the same way Oracle proposed just this week to donate code and governance of the Hudson Project to the Eclipse Foundation. Suárez-Potts is very encouraged by this move, and has hope that Oracle would perform a similar move with OpenOffice.org.

The divergence lies in where the code, copyright, and trademark would end up.

There is, of course, the Document Foundation, which could potentially be a good home for OpenOffice.org copyright. There is the matter of whether the Document Foundation could hire and maintain full-time developers, and Suárez-Potts believes that a licensing scheme must be created that favors vendors to sell and market OpenOffice.org flavor applications on their own, while still maintaining copyright by a single entity like the Document Foundation. Suárez-Potts feels that such a copyright and licensing infrastructure would help the broader ODF ecosystem.

"I want to increase the marketplace for ODF as fast as we can," he explained, "and that means engaging the interests of enterprise vendors as well as smaller businesses and the public sector."

Suárez-Potts does not want to see a weak LibreOffice become a proxy for OpenOffice.org, fail, and then set up a new array of FUD that would be heaped on OpenOffice.org. Strengthening the Document Foundation would go a long way towards preventing such an LibreOffice catastrophe and perhaps prepare the way to receive an Oracle donation of OpenOffice.org code.

Then there's the notion of creating a brand-new foundation that is tailor-made to handle OpenOffice.org the way it needs to be, or shifting the project to another existing foundation, such as the Eclipse or Apache Foundation.

Could a new foundation be formed? And if so, who is the best anchor? IBM's Symphony caters to enterprises, and is part of the Lotus Notes Suite. Red Hat, Novell, Canonical, and Google all use some elements of ODF, either as applications or file formats.

"What would stop them from forming an Eclipse-like foundation capable of employing the necessary developers, engaging in the necessary marketing, and furthering an application that meets a huge and growing market and that can also reach out to the cloud," Suárez-Potts asks. "For my vision is to have a suite that not only meets the needs of the desktop user but also one that can cut these heavy binds of legacy and achieve the cloud, with its implicit mobility and flexibility."

And therein lies the impetus for all of the questions surrounding OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice, and ODF. We are no longer dealing with a desktop-only application suite now. The cloud is here, and Google and even Microsoft are well on their way to being strong contenders with cloud-based productivity suites. ODF is not completely cut out of this progress, of course, since Google Docs relies on the ODF to store files. But OpenOffice.org is not near a cloud-based solution yet and runs the real risk of losing a piece of a very pig market.

These are the questions. Now it's time for answers about the future of this application and the entire ODF ecosystem.

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