The big winner from Apache OpenOffice.org

Why Oracle bypassed the The Document Foundation

Now that the dust has settled a bit around the news that Oracle is proposing to submit OpenOffice.org to the Apache Software Foundation, there are some lingering questions remaining about where OpenOffice.org goes from here.

[ Related: FAQ: What's the future of OpenOffice.org? ]

One of the questions would be why didn't Oracle toss the code over to The Document Foundation, which is currently the maintainer of LibreOffice, the OpenOffice.org-forked office suite. On the surface that would have made sense, since offering the OpenOffice.org code to The Document Foundation would be a perfect chance to re-merge the projects together.

But history reveals the actual reason: it is IBM who benefits the most from OpenOffice.org joining the Apache Software Foundation.

IBM is still making Lotus Symphony. Remember Symphony? (Don't worry, it slips my mind occasionally, too.) But IBM is still pushing this OpenOffice.org-based suite as a business desktop application, and Big Blue will be much happier keeping OpenOffice.org with the Apache Software Foundation than The Document Foundation.

Why? Because when, not if, the OpenOffice.org proposal is approved by the Apache Software Foundation, the OpenOffice.org will be licensed under the Apache Software License (ASL) v2. This means IBM and any other Apache OpenOffice.org project member can innovate the heck out the source code and not be obligated to give back to the mainline OpenOffice.org code, since the ASL is a non-copyleft license. IBM and other OpenOffice.org contributors will also be able to re-license OpenOffice.org code under any license they want, including a proprietary license, should they wish. It also keeps a major Open Document Format project ensconced within IBM-friendly governance.

IBM historically has preferred open source projects with "Apache-friendly" licenses. They were pretty vocal about this when Sun open sourced Java under the GNU Public License (GPL) in 2006.

"In general, we are pleased about Sun's announcement that they intend to open source Java and are very supportive of the move.

"IBM supports all the OSI approved open source licenses. Having said that, there already is an important existing open source effort working with Sun to create a Java compatible implementation of Java SE in the Apache Foundation--namely the Harmony project. In addition, there have been some very recent announcements that companies active in the Java ME space will be contributing key Java technologies to the Apache Foundation to jumpstart Java ME projects.

"In light of the Apache projects, we have discussed with Sun our strong belief that Sun should contribute their Java technologies to Apache rather than starting another open source Java project, or at least make their contributions available under an 'Apache friendly' license to ensure the open source Java community isn't fragmented and disenfranchised, instead Sun would be bringing the same benefits of OS Java to this significant and growing open source community."

Oh, the many layers of irony in that statement. Of course, we have the benefit of hindsight today.

The effects of Sun's 2006 decision to license Java under the GPL are still resonating: Java under the GPL would ultimately cause Google to create a clean-room Java run-time based on Harmony called Dalvik in order to provide Android developers a non-GPL platform with which to work. This led to Oracle's infringement lawsuit against Google. Meanwhile, IBM, which (as you just read)supported Harmony quite strongly in 2006, ditched Harmony last year to join Oracle's OpenJDK project. IBM was granted a new measure of control over OpenJDK governance, thanks to a change in the OpenJDK bylaws, so they have a lot more influence over Java development now than they had with Harmony.

IBM seems to maneuver itself to any open source project that suits its needs, and for whatever reason they have decided to hitch their wagon to Oracle's star (or vice versa). With this historical context, there is really little surprise in Oracle's decision to go with the Apache Software Foundation, because IBM was probably influencing the decision.

My second question doesn't have a definitive answer--yet. But it needs to be answered.

It is simply this: how will OpenOffice.org remain relevant to end users?

We know IBM's Lotus Symphony and its users will benefit directly, but beyond that, who beyond individual OpenOffice.org fans will be using the suite? Red Hat, SUSE (née Novell), Google, and Canonical all tossed in with LibreOffice and The Document Foundation. That doesn't preclude OpenOffice.org from showing up in one of their repositories in the future, of course, but it does put a damper on potential user numbers.

It's not just a question of where OpenOffice.org will be distributed, but also how. Even IBM staffers are wondering how OpenOffice.org's extensive marketing machine will work within an Apache framework.

"I know that OpenOffice.org prided itself on a strong marketing committee as well," writes IBM ODF Architect Rob Weir, "I think this is important, but it is not clear to me yet how that fits into an Apache project. Certainly this aspect is more critical to an end-user facing project like OpenOffice than it would be to a developer tool. Maybe someone out there in Apache-land will be able to offer some suggestions on how best to integrate this function into an Apache project?"

With IBM marketing Symphony, it's doubtful they will be putting much marketing juice into the parent OpenOffice.org project. And don't look at Oracle--they just got the project off their hands.

I think what will we see with OpenOffice.org is sort of what we are starting to see with Linux now, only on a far more drastic scale. Linux is the basis of some great distros (Fedora and Ubuntu), and platforms (Android), but the Linux brand itself seems to be fading a bit into the background. Similarly, OpenOffice.org will probably remain a vibrant open source community within the Apache Software Foundation, but it will only serve as a parent project to its derivatives, with the branded product getting very little use beyond hard-core users.

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