[Remember that even though I work for IBM I am an individual with my own thoughts and ideas. Anything I write here may not necessarily represent the views of the IBM Corporation or its partners... though I'm hoping that's only a matter of time before they catch up.]
I've been itching to write about this for a couple of days. Thanks to the hardworking guys behind the scenes at developerWorks who had to deal with some very unpleasant technical issues which made this community unavailable for a while. The put in a lot of hours and effort to get everything back up the way it was supposed to be.
First, let me point you to this: Oracle Announces Its Intention to Move OpenOffice.org to a Community-based Project
From what I understand, Oracle has decided to remove OpenOffice.org from it's commercial development and is essentially setting it free into the community. How did this happen?
Shortly after Oracle acquired Sun, the developers working with OpenOffice.org wanted to know the plan. The open-source software suite, which evolved from StarOffice, has been a serious contender with Microsoft Office. The acquisition could be a real boon for the suite, or a problem.
The first sign of Oracle's handling of this project was their move to charge for the Microsoft Office Plugin to handle the Open Document Format. The plugin was not open-source, but Sun had offered it for free as a way for OpenOffice.org users to easily exchange documents with Microsoft Office users. I employed this strategy myself from time to time to encourage someone to accept an Open Document file rather than having to save it as a Microsoft document. Oracle began to charge for the plugin, and charge mightily. What was once a free plugin became $9000 dollars (with an optional $1980 annual maintenance fee).
In September of 2010, some of the core developers of OpenOffice.org took a bold step. They started the Document Foundation. Their idea was to fulfil the promise of independence written into the original charter. Oracle was invited to join this organization. Another project was formed, forking from the OpenOffice.org code of the time. LibreOffice was unencumbered and reworked to remove anything that might cause complications, such as the OpenOffice.org logos. I switched to LibreOffice almost immediately and had no problems with it.
Oracle's response to this activity was to ask the leaders of The Document Foundation to leave the OpenOffice.org council, citing a "conflict of interest." In response to this, 33 developers resigned from Oracle and moved their work to LibreOffice. This action was accompanied by an open letter to the community explaining their perspective.
I suspect that losing that number of developers who were familiar with a popular project was a blow. Everything seemed to go quiet on that front for a while. LibreOffice got a few updates and seemed to get its feet under it. Then, almost a year after this begins, Oracle announces that it is setting OpenOffice.org free.
There are a lot of perspectives on this, to be sure. Some may feel that this is a major defeat for the idea of a Microsoft Office alternative because Oracle might have driven OpenOffice.org into a lot of environments by making it a part of their application solutions. Who knows? What I do know is this makes some strong statements about open-source software and community development. Here are a few things that I take away:
- Open source is not just a game. Open-source developers may do this in their spare time, but they are generally passionate about these projects. Their whole goal for doing these things is often not about making money but about making excellent software that works as well as it possibly can. This is a core value of Open source.
- Promises matter. What started the whole ball rolling on this is that the Document Foundation people began to have doubts about Oracle's commitment to openness. They tested that by creating something outside of Oracle's direct control. They invited Oracle to participate, but they specifically designed the effort to be unencumbered by Oracle's business requirements. This could have gone nicely, much like the Eclipse effort. Eclipse grows and is applied in more diverse ways, and IBM continues to build commercial solutions on top of it. The charter mattered to the developers and they were willing to defend it, at personal cost. For them it really was a battle for freedom.
- Do not underestimate the community. No matter how large your company is, the community is bigger than you. If you do not demonstrate good stewardship open-source developers can and will take their code and go home. Commercial interests and the open-source community can and do work together, but it must always bee driven by freedom. If you find ways to make money with free open-source software (FOSS) then you have the freedom to do so. But if you endanger the freedom of the community they have the ability to create a revolution. If it's a popular enough project they will do it.
We'll see if LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org come back together in some way. From a branding perspective that would be good because normal humans get too glassy-eyed about software forks that are a little more tolerated by dedicated open-sourcers. Whether they do or not, I think the community should consider this a victory for the cause of open software.
 - LibreOffice Getting Started Guide, p. 4, A short history of LibreOffice.