IBM to realign Symphony with Apache OpenOffice

Symphony 3.0.1 to be the last performance

This one didn't go quite the way I thought it might: it turns out that, as I speculated back in October, IBM is indeed dropping production of its Lotus Symphony office suite, ending a five-year run on the Microsoft Office alternative.

According to a brief blog post last week from IBM's Ed Brill, the latest release of Symphony, 3.0.1, is also likely to be the last, ending IBM's fork of the OpenOffice code.

"Our energy from here is going into the Apache OpenOffice project, and we expect to distribute an 'IBM edition' of Apache OpenOffice in the future," Brill wrote.

That IBM is dropping its branded Symphony line may not seem much of a surprise, but I am not breaking any arms patting myself on the back. The whole reason I theorized that IBM was poised to drop Symphony at all was based on IBM's apparent on the whole topic of fundraising last Fall when the German non-profit Team e.V. raised a hue and cry about funding, which initially raised questions about where IBM stood in all of this. But all of my speculation was based on a faulty premise: that the Apache OpenOffice project was in some kind of financial trouble.

It seems that Team may have been acting more on their own behalf than OpenOffice's. Certainly the Apache Software Foundation (ASF), which oversees the Apache OpenOffice project, disavowed Team's assertions made last Fall.

Conventional wisdom suggests that now that OpenOffice is part of the ASF and the OpenOffice office suite is licensed under the Apache Software License (ASL) v2, this means IBM and any other Apache OpenOffice project member can innovate the OpenOffice source code for their own purposes and not be obligated to give back to the mainline OpenOffice code, since the ASL is a non-copyleft license. IBM and other OpenOffice contributors would also be able to re-license OpenOffice code under any license they want, including a proprietary license, should they wish. It also keeps a major Open Document Format (ODF) project ensconced within IBM-friendly governance.

It turns out that IBM was going to drop Lotus Symphony after all, but for completely different reasons. The company is seeking to realign its development team with that of the OpenOffice community. It is also bucking that conventional wisdom about the code: according to Eric Orchet, Product Manager for Symphony, "the new Apache OpenOffice code will not be based on Eclipse. We are donating the Symphony code to the Apache project. The sidebar in Symphony is C++ code today."

IBM is not, it seems, keeping all of its goodies for itself.

Big Blue's not trying to bully its way to OpenOffice control with its wallet, either. Any intimation that IBM might be trying to muscle its way into the ASF through financial donations would likely be wrong. According to the 2010 IRS Form 990 filed by the ASF, while the total amount of revenue received by the ASF did rise in 2010, the percentage of large-donor donations actually dropped sharply during the ASF's 2010 fiscal year ending April 30, 2011.

All non-profit organizations in the U.S. that file for an exemption from income tax must file a Form 990 to demonstrate their status and their overall finances for the year, a form that must also, by law, be made public.

According to the 2010 Form 990, the ASF's revenue went up to $525,954 in 2010, up from $497,449 in 2009. Their public support percentage, conversely, jumped from 57 percent to 88.54 percent. "Public support," in this context, is the percentage of total revenue that comes in portions that are less than 2 percent of total revenue for the past five years. (The IRS's assumption being that any donation more than 2 percent could skew an organization's non-profit status.)

If anyone wanted to try to point fingers at any one company making heavy donations to the ASF, however, that case would be very hard to make last year: the total amount of donations that were higher than this two-percent litmus test was a mere $182,785, compared to $460,000 of non-public support in fiscal year 2009. ASF's non-profit status got a lot stronger, then, with a public support percentage in the high 80-percent range.

It is important to note that that $182,785 didn't necessarily come from all one donor: this was just the total of the donations that were at or higher than the ASF's two-percent figure, which this past year was $34,442.52. Also, it's very important to remember that under ASF governance, no donations can be earmarked for any one project within the ASF.

Given that the ASF is not receiving a large chunk of its revenue from big donors, any theories ventured about IBM's financial involvement in Apache seem unfounded. Their approach, it seems, will be mostly on the human resources and talent end of the process.

So what does IBM gain from making such a branding change? It could be argued that the OpenOffice brand is bigger than even it's own Lotus Symphony brand, and as such this new alignment affords them better market notoriety. An alignment with the OpenOffice community itself will also enable Big Blue to tap into the resources of the community--something that can't be ignored.

I also have to wonder if this alignment is also a bit of market positioning against LibreOffice, which has steadily gained branding and market share against its OpenOffice originator. The community-oriented fork of OpenOffice, led by the Document Foundation, seems to have captured the hearts and minds of many developers and users within the free and open source software community, and IBM may have (wisely) decided that "muddying the waters" with a second commercially based fork of OpenOffice was potentially asking for trouble.

I think, ultimately, this will prove to be a beneficial move to both IBM and the Apache OpenOffice project. Aligning their goals and resources will strengthen the code base and ideally improve innovation for the popular open source office suite.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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