What we know about Oracle Cloud Office, OpenOffice.org

Oracle Corp. calmed the fears of tens of millions of OpenOffice.org users when it declared it would keep supporting the free open-source productivity suite following its merger with Sun Microsystems Inc.

It also cheered anti-Microsoft Office factions when it said it would deliver a Web version called Oracle Cloud Office. However, Oracle's brief announcements also raised a number of questions that neither the company nor OpenOffice.org wanted to answer. Here's what we know:

1. What will Oracle Cloud Office look like?

There are many routes Oracle can take with Cloud Office. Will it be a lightweight app that emphasizes Web-based collaboration, a la Google Docs? One that relies on compatibility with its better-known sibling (Microsoft Office) as its chief selling point, such as the upcoming Office Web? Or one that tries to replicate the breadth of OpenOffice.org's features and go head-to-head against the similarly-broad Zoho?

Oracle chief corporate architect Ed Screven didn't say during his talk last week. But Raju Vegesna, chief evangelist at Zoho, argues that necessity will guide Oracle's strategy. "To bring that entire feature set online would take significant effort," he said. Zoho spent five years rewriting its Zoho Mail client into a Web app, despite its 350-strong corps of developers. "People underestimate the effort involved."

By comparison, Sun reportedly only employed 50 developers for OpenOffice.org. And OpenOffice.org is notorious for its large, tricky codebase, written primarily in C++ and Java. The codebase is so sprawling that one web site, the SourceForge-owned Ohloh, estimates that it would take $411 million dollars and 7,473 programmer man-years to rewrite it from scratch.

The trouble with a lightweight offering, says Guy Creese, an analyst with the Burton Group, is that it will limit its attractiveness to corporate customers — the ones Screven said Oracle wants to win.

2. Will Web-enabling OpenOffice.org be difficult, then?

Not necessarily, judging by the trio of companies outside of Sun that have done it.

One Nevada start-up called ZoooS LLC showed off a preview for a Web-hosted version of OpenOffice.org a year-and-a-half ago. A partially functional version was apparently abandoned by its creators a year ago. The Firefox add-on, compatible only with version 2.x, is still available for download.

A little-known group called OpenOffice.org Anywhere recently put up browser-based version of OpenOffice.org, for which it charges 65 cents an hour.

Most successfully, French open-source start-up Ulteo used its application streaming technology to host OpenOffice.org on the Web. That attracted 95,000 users, who enjoyed better over-the-wire performance than from the desktop version of OpenOffice.org, said CEO Thierry Koehrlen. Ulteo was never approached by Sun to help develop a Web version, he said.

3. How might Oracle deliver it?

Even before the acquisition closed, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is said to have "encouraged" OpenOffice.org developers to start rewriting the app using Sun's Rich Internet Application (RIA) platform, JavaFX.

Michael Meeks, the Novell Inc. developer who launched the Go-OO branch of OpenOffice.org, is pessimistic about JavaFX, saying its semi-proprietary licensing is an obstacle for the open-source app, and it poses other technical problems.

He is also not in favor of using standards-based Web technology. "If this is some CSS + JavaScript monster a WYSWYG editor is near impossible," he blogged last week. "I'm not convinced that HTML5 provides enough to do this adequately either."

Meeks calls Oracle Cloud Office a "pipe dream" loaded with "insurmountable technical challenges."

Burton Group's Creese is not as pessimistic, but he said he agrees that AJAX-type technologies won't suffice for enterprise-class features. He favors a rich Internet application such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight.

4. When might Oracle Cloud Office arrive?

Apparently confirming last year's report, Screven said that Sun had been working on Oracle Cloud Office "for some time."

Even with that, Tobias Kuipers, CTO of the Software Improvement Group, thinks it will take a while. "In order for it to run on the cloud a large part of the system needs to be adapted," he wrote. "If we assume that this part is 25%, which is a low assumption, then a rewrite effort is going to take 100 man-years."

Vegesna is more specific. "I'm thinking 4-5 years out," he said. "Microsoft took some time [with Office Web], I think it will also be the same with Oracle."

5. What happens to OpenOffice.org?

In the short term, nothing changes. OpenOffice.org 3.0 was released 15 months ago. Downloads from the OpenOffice.org Web site have numbered 123 million copies, with tens of millions more downloaded through mirror and partner sites.

OpenOffice.org 3.2 is due for final release this month. The release schedule, which stretches out to version 3.4.1 due in March 2011, does not mention any cloud versions of OpenOffice.org.

In the long term, Oracle looks like it will maintain the tight grip on OpenOffice.org's development that Sun was heavily criticized for. That includes not spinning off OpenOffice.org into an independent foundation, as some community members called for last year.

Keeping other interested parties — both IBM and Novell have developed their own versions of OpenOffice.org — at arm's length may be a mistake, says Creese. "It would make OpenOffice.org stronger in the long run if others had more of a say in the product's direction."

6. How will OpenOffice.org fare in the enterprise market?

OpenOffice.org has had bipolar adoption: consumers and small-to-medium-size businesses on one end, and large government and educational institutions on the other.

Oracle says it's going to fill in the missing middle. "We're going to focus on enterprise customers. We're going to build integrations between business intelligence and OpenOffice, and our content-management solutions and OpenOffice," Screven said.

That's a strategy, however, that both IBM (Lotus Symphony and Lotus Notes) and Microsoft (Office and SharePoint) are already pursuing. "Oracle is joining the crowd here," Creese said.

Creese said he thinks Oracle could distinguish itself instead by making OpenOffice.org more adept at Web-based collaborative authoring.

7. What happens to StarOffice?

StarOffice was the original app that Sun open-sourced after buying it in 2000. Virtually identical to OpenOffice.org, the main difference is the price — $34.95, which gives users access to customer support.

But free is free, and as a result, OpenOffice.org is far more popular than StarOffice today.

Though it still appears on the Web site, the StarOffice name may be set for quiet retirement by Oracle. Oracle executives last week did not mention StarOffice by name once. Meanwhile, Screven mentioned a "community edition of OpenOffice.org."

That seems to hint that Oracle will rename the paid, supported StarOffice to OpenOffice.org, and rename the free version — today just called Openoffice.org — to something like OpenOffice.org Community Edition.

Eric Lai covers Windows and Linux, desktop applications, databases and business intelligence for Computerworld. Follow Eric on Twitter at Twitter@ericylai or subscribe to Eric's RSS feed Lai RSS. His e-mail address is elai@computerworld.com.

This story, "What we know about Oracle Cloud Office, OpenOffice.org" was originally published by Computerworld.

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