Oracle-Sun deal renews calls for OpenOffice.org's independence

Question remains about best role model: Mozilla, Apache or Linux Foundation?

Oracle Corp.'s purchase of Sun Microsystems Inc. announced last week is reviving calls for Sun's open-source OpenOffice.org suite to be spun out into an independent foundation.

Oracle is one of the top corporate contributors to Linux and many other open-source software projects.

However, that has long been overshadowed by the tens of billions of dollars Oracle reaps annually from proprietary enterprise software, as well as brazen attacks it has made on open-source stalwarts such as Red Hat Inc.

According to some insiders, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's iron fist could actually help OpenOffice.org by helping to streamline software development or by improving its competitiveness against Microsoft Office -- two longtime complaints leveled against Sun, which remains the group's primary financial sponsor and the source of most of its programmers nine years after making it open-source.

"I started writing about OpenOffice.org/StarOffice 10 years ago, and I would have expected that now, there would be far more name recognition and adoption," wrote Solveig Haugland, a documentation author for OpenOffice.org. "I hope that Oracle sees the value in focusing more on both."

Or, OpenOffice.org might benefit Oracle as a valuable weapon in its never-ending war against Microsoft. The latest version, OpenOffice 3.0, has been downloaded more than 50 million times in its first six months. Microsoft Office's profits, meanwhile, have been slumping.

"It's a no-brainer that any company that wants -- like Oracle -- to make inroads on Microsoft's desktop hegemony and economic strength should do whatever it can to support and turbocharge further development of OpenOffice.org," said Andy Updegrove, a Boston lawyer and an open-source advocate.

If you love it, set it free?

Updegrove said he thinks that Oracle would be wise to consider putting into motion the long-stymied spin-off of OpenOffice.org.

"It would provide even greater credibility and greater incentives for additional developers to join the project, from both the independent community as well as from major vendors like IBM and Google," Updegrove said.

Michael Meeks, a developer at Novell Inc. who is overseeing Novell's custom branch of the OpenOffice.org software, is more blunt. "We need to fix the deeply conservative, entrenched group think around development process in the project," he said. "Currently, we have a total mess in this regard."

Bruce D'Arcus, a college professor and co-lead for OpenOffice.org's bibliographic project, said he thinks the Oracle-Sun deal is a "good opportunity" for the project to be completely spun off.

Even John McCreesh, head of marketing for OpenOffice.org, leans towards the organization's emancipation. "Philosophically, I am bound to agree that this feels the 'right' model for an open-source community," McCreesh wrote in his blog last week.

McCreesh told Computerworld in an e-mail that most OpenOffice.org community members "are happy to play wait and see, with a foundation as a possibility if Oracle starts to impede the project in some way."

Absent from the debate is IBM, which did not return requests for comment. IBM has long called for OpenOffice.org's freedom.

"We think that Open Office has quite a bit of potential and would love to see it move to the independent foundation that was promised in the press release back when Sun originally announced OpenOffice," IBM Lotus director of strategy, Doug Heintzman, said in 2007.

In hunt of a model

If Oracle were to agree, McCreesh said, the OpenOffice.org project could be turned into an independent foundation that would own two basic things: the OpenOffice.org trademark and joint copyright of the source code (as Sun now enjoys).

If Oracle forbade it, an independent foundation for OpenOffice.org could still be created, McCreesh said. It would have full rights to continue developing OpenOffice.org's source code, which was released under GPL Version 3.

However, such a group would lack the right to use the OpenOffice.org name and the ability to reissue the code under a different license, unless it got the agreement the other joint copyright holders and code contributors, said McCreesh, who called the last step "a monumental task."

So, what role model should an OpenOffice.org Foundation emulate? Three role models exist, each with their differing strengths.

Let's make a deal

Most contributions to OpenOffice.org are in the form of donated time from Sun employees paid to work on the software or from third-party volunteers. Even with that in mind, the budget OpenOffice.org operates on is truly tight -- €70,000 ($92,000 U.S.) in 2008 and €60,000 ($79,000 U.S.) this year.

For those interested in seeing an OpenOffice.org Foundation gain the financial resources to do more damage to Microsoft Office, look no further than the Mozilla Foundation.

Mozilla had $75 million in revenue in 2007, with 91% coming from search royalties from Google Inc. It had assets of $99 million at the end of 2007.

That has helped its main product, its Firefox Web browser, become a strong challenger to Internet Explorer, taking more than a fifth of the market.

The problem: No similar financial deals for OpenOffice.org are apparent.

Woo the developers

Sun says its managers and developers still dominate OpenOffice.org because no other vendors are willing to step up. Not so, said Novell's Meeks. Instead, he said, Sun continues trying to "own" OpenOffice.org, acting "rather like an under-talented manager vetoing the hiring of a more talented employee. That needs to change."

Several open-source foundations stand out for having created strong developer communities, including the Eclipse Foundation and the Apache Foundation.

IBM would likely support this model, having been integral to the formation of both. Despite IBM's continued strong presence in Apache, the group is viewed "as an example of a developer-controlled meritocracy," McCreesh said.

A potential obstacle: the OpenOffice.org source code has long been fairly monolithic, making it difficult for projects to be divvied up even if more developers were available. OpenOffice.org has been trying to fix this, though.

Attract big corporations

Vendors supporting OpenOffice.org today include Novell, Red Hat, RedFlag CH2000, IBM, Google and Sun. But judging by OpenOffice.org's shoestring budget, those contributions pale compared with the largess enjoyed by the Linux Foundation.

The group, whose most famous employee is Linus Torvalds, has a thriving roster of corporate sponsors.

The Linux Foundation has eight platinum members that pay $500,000 a year: Fujitsu, Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi, IBM, Intel, NEC, Novell and Oracle. It has seven gold members that pay $100,000 a year: AMD, Cisco Systems, ETRI, Google, Motorola, NetApp and Nokia. And it has 26 silver members, which each pay $5,000 to $20,000 annually.

Based on that, the Linux Foundation brings in between $4.8 million and $5.2 million a year from corporate sponsors. That does not include the investment in developer hours and marketing time from all the vendors.

As a niche application, OpenOffice.org lacks Linux's name recognition and its wide technical importance. Still, it has weighty symbolism, being a key challenger to one of Microsoft Corp.'s traditional profit pillars, Office. That should attract some of Microsoft's many foes.

"With the right governance around OpenOffice.org, I am certain that lots of other companies would step up, support and help drive OpenOffice.org in a way that they currently do not," Meeks said.

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