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Apache OpenOffice: who knows where the time goes?

by Richard Hillesley

In March Rob Weir put up a blog entry entitled “Where did the time go? (A look at the Apache OpenOffice timeline)”, showing the slow progress of Apache OpenOffice through the process of acceptance into the Apache fold. Richard Hillesley looks at the issues…

Oracle announced the donation of the code to the Apache Software Foundation in June last year. For a number of reasons, primarily Apache incubation issues, code migration and removal of copyleft, there has been no update of the OpenOffice codebase since.

Last month IBM announced the release of Symphony 3.0.1, which will “be the last release of IBM’s own fork of the OpenOffice codebase,” and has declared that IBM’s future energies are to be devoted to Apache OpenOffice, of which IBM expects to release an exclusively IBM edition, which promises to be “an identical release of the Apache OpenOffice code under the Apache license,” with plug-in extensions (primarily to plug in to other IBM products).

Significantly, the pledge to release the code of Lotus Symphony to the Apache Software Foundation, made last July, is yet to be realised, perhaps because of a combination of ongoing code development and relicensing issues.

There has been a lot of speculation about IBM’s role in Oracle’s donation of the OpenOffice.code to the Apache Software Foundation, and its decision to follow the code to Apache, rather than work with the community on LibreOffice. It is usually suggested that the decision was driven by licensing issues. A liberal licensing regime, such as the Apache licence affords, allows the office suite to become a repository of useful components for web office, system management and data warehousing tools that reach far beyond the scope of a stand alone office suite, and there is no obligation to give changes back to the community.

The unhappy result is that there are now two versions of the most successful open source office suite, a community fork, developed primarily by SUSE and Red Hat engineers, and an Apache fork, which is effectively run by IBM engineers.

LibreOffice is thriving, and has many more committers and commits than the Apache project. Most of the contributors to the Apache project are IBM employees, and LibreOffice appears to have attracted more of the original Oracle/Sun employees. The core LibreOffice contributors who are not employed by SUSE and Red Hat are members of the wider community.

At the same time removal of code that is licensed exclusively under copyleft from Apache OpenOffice has necessitated the removal and/or replacement of many features, such as filters (libwd), complex-text rendering via ‘Graphite2’, removal of webdav support, the calc solver, PDF import, wordperfect import/graphics, and the database report builder; desktop icon integration is degraded and spell-checking has had to be replaced due to the loss of hunspell.

A curious side effect of this process is that community developers who licensed their code under the LGPL but assigned their copyright to Sun Microsystems, now find their code being re-licensed, against their will, to the Apache licence, which may mean the later absorption of the software in proprietary offerings.

Conversely, IBM personnel have hinted at ‘patent issues’ in the LibreOffice code:  “One thing not to lose track of is that Symphony has done IP remediation at many levels… But I know with certainty that we’ve fixed things that LO has missed. (I’m talking patents, not the MPL/LGPL dependency issues).” There is no word on what these patents might be, or indeed whether the issues are real.

While LibreOffice makes steady progress, it is hard to anticipate when a release of Apache OpenOffice will be available for people to play with, to compare and contrast with the community project.

It has even been suggested that OpenOffice may fail the incubation process which inducts the code into the Apache Software Foundation. Not all Apache contributors were happy with Oracle’s donation of the code to the ASF and the snubbing of the community that had worked on the code for the previous ten years. The abandonment of the community echoed Oracle’s donation of the Hudson project to Eclipse and the abandonment of the Jenkins fork of Hudson – “From the whispers of ApacheCon, may never leave the incubator project. The intention may be to do a thorough code audit and produce one last, clean release that the rival LibreOffice can absorb.”

The split is wasteful and divisive and favours nobody. It would be no disaster if the Apache OpenOffice project were to fail to incubate, and IBM were to join Intel in giving support to LibreOffice, but nobody is anticpating this any time soon.

For the time being LibreOffice has the wind behind it, and the IBM project is trailing in its wake.

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    • Jim Jagielski

      I believe it’s also been suggested that a black hole could collide with the Earth and destroy life as we know it.

      But I’m not worried.

      I guess the same could be said about OpenOffice “failing” the Incubation process… Sometimes people “suggest” things to either create divisiveness or to enact it. Hopefully a reporter does their homework and instead of blindly accepting such statements, actually gets around to determine the reason behind them.

    • Jim Jagielski

      “The split is wasteful and divisive and favours nobody. It would be no disaster if the LibreOffice project were to fail, and Intel were to join IBM in giving support to Apache OpenOffice, but nobody is anticpating this any time soon.”

      Oh, sorry. Did that just blow your mind?? *grin*

      FWIW: It *would* be a waste if LO and/or AOOo were to fail. Such value judgements as which is more “worthy” do little to help these communities collaborate and, in fact, create the division and conflict which this “report” supposedly condemns. There is a real need and value in both projects, and there are many other OOo related projects than just these 2 in the entire OOo eco-system. As soon as people realize this, the entire OOo community will be for the better.

    • Steve

      “‘From the whispers of ApacheCon’…” — quoting an opinion piece speaking of unattributed whispers? That’s at least three levels of gossip without even checking the whisperer’s source.

    • Petem

      the patent may be a real issue.. (well.. real in that out patent system is so #)(&$*(@$ ‘d up) … i remember back when OOo was still in sun’s hands… sun made an agreement with MS that covers all users of “staroffice” NOT OOo… this left users of OOo out in the wind if MS decided to sue…. while OOo or even LOo are not being used in large enough quantity to affect MS numbers$…. you can bet that if it did become big enough MS would sue…. this is where i see the IBM patent comment come into play ….

    • Well, I hope both projects succeed. And I hope each develops to fit its chosen market and conquer new ones. Two ODF-based Office suites has to be a healthier ecology than one.

    • Chris T

      To be honest, I’d be quite happy if both of them shrivelled up and a new, modern open source office suite sprung from their ashes. Using either of them just feels like a dismal throwback to the 90s these days, and using Apple’s IWork or even a recent version of MS Office is an infinitely more pleasurable experience.

    • Joseph

      >There is a real need and value in both projects, and there are many other OOo related projects than just
      >these 2 in the entire OOo eco-system. As soon as people realize this, the entire OOo community will be
      >for the better.

      People can’t realize things that simply aren’t true. These is no need for a duplication of code (this isn’t a fork based on differing visions, but rather on licenses and corporate politics). There is no value in OpenOffice since the article states that parts have had to be stripped out, making it currently in worse shape than the last OpenOffice release. Perhaps as soon as open source developers realize that forking is a negative to be avoided whenever possible, the entire open source community will be for the better. We have too few resources to split them between essentially identical products. The community has spoken and LibreOffice has won. OpenOffice needs to be retired and all resources devoted to the victor.

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    • A loss for the open source community. A lot of windows and Linux users all seem to know the OpenOffice name. If OpenOffice does not make it out of the Apache incubator I am not sure a ton of people will know about the Libreoffice alternative.

      If OpenOffice pulls through, I wonder how much duplicate efforts will be going on.

      I have to admit I have been very impressed with LibreOffice development progress.

    • Jim Jagielski

      I will admit that such comments as “The community has spoken and LibreOffice has won. OpenOffice needs to be retired and all resources devoted to the victor” where things are seen as childish games in a school playground, with one side needing to be declared “the winner” are so juvenile as to be pitiful.

      And the comment regarding “no value in OpenOffice” is so much in error as to be laughable.

      In any case, I’m glad to see that most people see the need, and the rationale, for both.

      Before OOo was donated to the ASF, I myself used LO when I needed an Office substitute. Now that AOOo is being actively developed, with a release set for a few weeks, I’ve made the transition back to AOOo.

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    • jjolla

      I’m a big fan of open source software .. i use a lot of it. Unortunately, OO and LO are both ugly and stuck in the past. I do understand all the licencing issues holding OO back, but I was hoping LO would have taken a giant step forward by now. I suspect both products are modibund. That’s a shame because it means I have to license not only MS Office, but a proprietary OS (MS or OSX) for the foreseeable future.

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