Open Office: A Horse of a Different Source

amcpherson's picture

The last few weeks have seen a number of posts about the health of open source office productivity software Open Office. Michael Meeks, open office developer, started this controversy with his recent blog post on whether Open Office is a “dying horse.”

OO.o peaked at around 70 active developers in late 2004 and is trending downwards, the Linux kernel is nearer 300 active developers
and trending upwards. Time range - this is drastically reduced for the Linux kernel - down to the sheer volume of changes: eighteen months of Linux’ changes bust calc’s row limit, where OO.o hit only 15k rows thus far. Diversity: the linux graph omits an in-chart legend, this is a result of the 300+ organisations that actively contribute to Linux; interestingly, a good third of contribution to Linux comes from external (or un-affiliated) developers, but the rest comes from corporates. What is stopping corporations investing similarly in OO.o ?

Last week Sun formally responded with a post that details their own statistics that not surprisingly paint a different picture, even though they concede that issues being fixed are going down.

Let’s start with the basics. Does Open Office matter to those of us who want to see and use free software exclusively? Michael says:

Everyone that wants Free software to succeed on the desktop, needs to care about the true success of OpenOffice.org: it is a key piece here. Leaving the project to a single vendor to resource & carry will never bring us the gorgeous office suite that we need.

He’s right. While I agree with him that OpenOffice is important, I worry even more about the alternatives if it were allowed to fail. Google’s office suite works increasingly well and supports open standards; thus it’s highly preferable to Microsoft. Yet, are we coming down to a two horse race in the office productivity space, to a world dominated by Microsoft and Google? Since neither are open source solutions, I worry that we would be beholden to the same proprietary forces that have shaped the desktop market. We shouldn’t rely on Sun to save us here. In fact it may be counter-productive to do so.

It’s shown again and again that too much central control of an open source project by one entity impedes its growth, especially in the ranks of the development community. But make no mistake: commercial support for open source is incredibly important. As the paper we published last year on kernel development shows, a wide range of companies support the majority of Linux development (IBM, Novell, Red Hat, etc).

Do those companies support Linux for charity? Absolutely not. There are market incentives for them to pay developers to enhance the platform. Instead of beating up on Sun, we should all thank them for their support for Open Office. At the same time, we should urge them to make the structural, licensing and organizational changes needed for the widest number of individuals and companies to benefit from contributing to Open Office. That means giving up control.

Some make the argument that Linus, Andrew and company assert a large amount of control on Linux development. What’s the difference? First of all, Linux development has clear rules of engagement that are well understand and tested. (See Jon Corbet’s How To Contribute to the Linux Development Community book.) These rules are based on merit. While some would argue that personal politics play a role, it’s clear that a wide range of code gets merged into the kernel every release, and that a healthy discourse and analysis of the merits of that code are the contributing factors to its inclusion. Linus is an engineer whose primary motivation was building good software. He is a practical person and his organization reflects that, as well as his motivation.

Another important difference is that the Linux community is made up of individuals, not companies. (Meaning: in the kernel community you gain standing through your own code contributions, not who pays your paycheck.) Decisions are made by individuals, not by companies. Why is this important? It’s difficult to trust companies since you don’t know who will be making the decisions in the future. Companies are a vessel for shareholder value, and their motivations spring from protecting and growing that value. This is why open source developers mistrust projects controlled by commercial entities. Unless licensing and an organizational charter is strong enough to ensure its survival and operation outside of shareholder concerns, most developers won’t invest their personal capital in the project unless they are being paid to do so.

To be fair to Sun, perhaps building a large and thriving ecosystem and development community is harder to do with office productivity software than with infrastructure. Many have said that the open source development model is best suited for infrastructure: software that runs closer to the machine like an OS or web server, software that is more abstract, modular and not as reliant on features and feedback from users.

As Thorsten Ziehm, developer from Sun says,

But we need a lot of more people in all projects on OOo to increase the success of OOo in future. Some people talk about code contribution only. I talk about we need more people in all areas and projects – User Experience, QA, L10N, Development or any other project on OOo – to get dreams fulfilled.

He’s right. Open Office needs more involvement from those who care about its existence. I think Open Office is far from a dying horse. Their last release had 28 million downloads. That is success by any measure.

Point by point comparisons with its community and Linux’s are far from an ideal way to gauge Open Office’s health, yet there are warning signs. I am by no means an expert on their community’s organization, yet it seems clear that the project may benefit from a lessening of control and organization and licensing changes that encourage and reward other parties to participate.