Stay away from OpenOffice.org until Oracle shows commitment, analyst says

Oracle must invest in the open-source suite, says Software Improvement Group

A European IT consulting firm is warning large enterprises and government entities not to deploy OpenOffice.org until Oracle Corp. shows proof that it will invest as heavily in the development of the open-source productivity suite as project champion Sun Microsystems Inc. did.

According to a 12-page report published earlier this week by Amsterdam-based Software Improvement Group, the main risk is that OpenOffice.org's code may get buggier if Oracle pulls personnel and resources from OpenOffice.org after finalizing its acquisition of Sun.

Although Sun spun the productivity suite out to the open-source community in 2000, OpenOffice.org's development and marketing still relies heavily on paid Sun employees, such as OpenOffice.org community manager (and overall boss) Louis Saurez-Potts.

"There is a fairly advanced [quality assurance] mechanism in the OpenOffice.org project," said Tobias Kuipers, chief technology officer at Software Improvement Group, in an interview. "It involves 30 to 40 man-years [of developer time], which is fairly expensive and not something you can maintain in your attic."

A 50-person firm, SIG counts ABN Amro, ING Bank, DHL and the Dutch government among its clients. Kuipers said the firm's report on OpenOffice.org was self-funded.

He said the other risk is that Oracle, in its zeal to beat Microsoft Corp., could divert resources for OpenOffice.org toward a commercial version (see PDF) of the software or to a "fork" aimed at challenging Microsoft Office in the enterprise market.

"It all hangs in the balance, depending on what Larry Ellison and Oracle do with OpenOffice.org," he said.

Sun already sells and supports a version of OpenOffice.org, called StarOffice. StarOffice has had less success pulling users from Microsoft Office than its entirely free sibling, OpenOffice.org.

Kuipers said a move to OpenOffice.org would be riskiest for large organizations, because the cost of switching would be high. Individuals and small businesses are less vulnerable, he said. He also noted that the risks do not apply to companies adopting Lotus Symphony, an IBM-led fork of OpenOffice.org, because it comes with IBM's backing.

Oracle did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In an e-mail, OpenOffice.org marketing lead John McCreesh (who is not a Sun employee) called the SIG report "pure speculation."

"The OpenOffice.org community is very grateful to Sun for creating the community in the first place, and for its ongoing generous support. But [the OpenOffice.org community is] not dependent on any single sponsor for its continuing existence," McCreesh said. He dismissed fears that OpenOffice.org users will find themselves bereft of support.

"If there is money to be made from offering commercial support to governments, etc., then market forces will ensure that the support will grow out," he said.

Meanwhile, development for Openoffice.org continues. A second release candidate for Version 3.2 was released last week. New features include faster start-up times, better support for OpenDocument Format and Microsoft Office Open XML documents, and improvements to Calc (an Excel-like spreadsheet program).

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

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