Freedom on a Fork

Regular readers of this column will know that I'm something of a fan of forks, but even I was surprised when was forked by the Document Foundation six months ago.

Since then, the LibreOffice project has gone from strength to strength, but again I find myself caught on the hop by events:

Oracle Corporation today is announcing its intention to move to a purely community-based open source project and to no longer offer a commercial version of Open Office.

Naively, I would have expected Larry Ellison to have gone mano a mano with LibreOffice for rather longer, since he's not a chap to accept defeat lightly. Instead, he seems to have acknowledged the power of the people, and set free:

"Given the breadth of interest in free personal productivity applications and the rapid evolution of personal computing technologies, we believe the project would be best managed by an organization focused on serving that broad constituency on a non-commercial basis," said Edward Screven, Oracle's Chief Corporate Architect. "We intend to begin working immediately with community members to further the continued success of Open Office. Oracle will continue to strongly support the adoption of open standards-based document formats, such as the Open Document Format (ODF)."

Now, clearly many question marks hang over that "working with community members to further the continued success of Open Office". Does that mean financial contributions, code contributions, the name "" even? How exactly will it be supporting the adoption of ODF? Will Oracle be offering to its customers – something that would probably be even more valuable than any of those?

That last aspect – evangelising among existing customers – is perhaps the thing I regret most about Oracle's decision. When Oracle bought Sun, it seemed to me that one potential benefit for the open source world was that it might get behind the free office suite and really push it out to its customer base. That seems not to have happened, which is unfortunate, because it would have helped establish it as a credible alternative to Microsoft Office.

However, more positively Oracle's decision re-affirms the power of the community to decide its own fate. The fact that one of the biggest and most bellicose software companies has had to go along with what the community around one of its products wants is huge. Not so much for its immediate results – since LibreOffice was coming along nicely anyway – but for the signal it sends. It effectively puts all companies based around open source on notice that they can't simply take the associated community for granted, or the community might just take that code and fork it.

Of course, there will still be asymmetries between the fork and the original code base, especially if the main licence is the GNU GPL, which ironically gives special rights to the holder of the code's copyright (for example, to offer it under non-free licences.) But the threat of pulling away key community coders (assuming they exist – not all open source projects run by companies have them) just got stronger.

Aside from question marks hanging over Oracle's intentions towards LibreOffice, the other interesting aspect is what those working on will do. Given that Oracle is freeing them to pursue their own course – or, to put it less kindly, effectively abandoning them – it would make sense to join up with the LibreOffice community.

After all, forks may be great for winning freedom, but you can definitely have too much of a good thing.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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