Can IBM save OpenOffice.org from itself?

New member of open-source group must contend with development monoculture

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"Unfortunately, some Novell engineers' behavior and vision of what the OpenOffice.org project should be and should [not be] leave me and others appalled by their misunderstanding of what a community really is," he said. "I think the real issue with Novell now has more to do with individual egos and agendas than anything else."

Convincing the mouse to roar again

Another problem with Sun is that it has taken an increasingly passive position in the past several years against OpenOffice.org's chief rival, Microsoft. Out is ex-CEO Scott McNealy, who was famous for his scripted put-downs of Microsoft, and in is Jonathan Schwartz, whose tenure has been marked by an increasing cooperation with what once was Sun's symbolic bogeyman.

For instance, Sun abstained from voting for or against ratifying the Office Open XML document format as a standard in the ISO vote earlier this month. And the one time it did weigh in, it was to express its conditional support for Open XML.

One observer close to OpenOffice.org links the change in tone to the terms of a $1.6 billion settlement paid by Microsoft to Sun in 2004 that has also resulted in technical and marketing cooperation.

IBM led the opposition against Open XML's approval. The observer expects IBM, which plans to inject 35 China-based developers into the OpenOffice.org process, to take over the role of being OpenOffice.org's public champion.

And he thinks that will be a good thing. "They'll be able to say some of the things that Sun can't," he said.

Moreover, says IBM's Poulley, "we bring our credibility and prowess in enterprise software, which has less been the forte of Sun."

But will Sun be willing to relinquish some or most of its control over OpenOffice.org? Poulley thinks the transition has already begun. Simply "by virtue of our joining, OpenOffice.org becomes a lot less Sun-dominated," he said.

And that process can't happen fast enough, if the software hopes to make any dent into Office's dominance, says another expert.

"As much as people like open formats, they won't buy an inferior product," said Andy Updegrove, a Boston lawyer who represents open-source organizations and blogs about the same topics. With IBM "betting big on OpenOffice, in two and a half years we could be looking at another Mozilla situation, where Firefox has 15 percent of the market. That could lead to Microsoft modifying Office or changing its licensing or prices, which benefits the entire market."

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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