OpenOffice.org's biggest foe may be Microsoft Office, but critics say the open-source organization has, from its inception, also been one of its application suite's own worst enemies -- a victim of a development culture that differs radically from the open-source norm. Observers now wonder if IBM's entry into OpenOffice.org can make the necessary changes.
Though spun out by Sun Microsystems Inc. in 2000, OpenOffice.org remains almost totally under the control of Sun employees working full-time on the project.
There is also a free, native Aqua version of OpenOffice called NeoOffice that was created by open-source developers unaffiliated with OpenOffice.org. NeoOffice has received positive reviews and the latest version, 2.2.1, includes support for Mac OS X Spellchecker and Address Book, as well as experimental support for opening Open XML files created by Excel 2007 and PowerPoint 2007. It was released late last month and is available for download.
That includes virtually all of OpenOffice.org's lead programmers and software testers, most of whom are based in Sun's Hamburg, Germany office, as well as OpenOffice.org's overall boss, Louis Suarez-Potts, who is the community's equivalent to Linux's Linus Torvalds.
"I think Sun developers have worked hard to open up the process at OpenOffice.org, and to my mind it has shown positive results," said Bruce D'Arcus, a lead developer at OpenOffice.org who has blogged about his dissatisfaction. "But there's a fundamental contradiction between having a vibrant open community and having the process controlled by a single party."
That tight control, combined with a bureaucratic culture, has hurt OpenOffice.org's ability to roll out new features quickly and otherwise keep pace technically with Microsoft Office, say insiders. For instance, OpenOffice's current (non-Aqua) Mac version lacks rich graphics, there is no e-mail module, and the software cannot yet open or read files in the Office Open XML document format used by Office 2007.
As a result, OpenOffice and its commercial cousin, StarOffice, still own just a small slice of the office software market, though the former has been downloaded more than 96 million times. The most recent version, OpenOffice 2.3, was released Monday as the organization prepared for its worldwide developer conference in Barcelona this week.
Is Sun missing the cultural point?
There are "enough developers frustrated by both the technical and the organizational infrastructure at OpenOffice.org" that it is "a real problem that is weighing on the project," said D'Arcus, a university geography professor who participates in the project.
Or as another OpenOffice developer, Michael Meeks of Novell Inc., blogged last week: "Question for Sun mgmt: at what fraction of the community will Sun reconsider its demand for ownership of the entirety of OpenOffice.org?"
That has long hurt OpenOffice.org's attempts to recruit and, moreover, keep contributors that are not paid by Sun or other leading backers such as Novell or Google Inc. to work on OpenOffice.org.
"OpenOffice.org has a very central business process of controlling what comes into the source base and by that very system misses the point of Open Source development," said Ken Foskey, an Australian open-source developer who volunteered for OpenOffice.org for three years. He left in 2005 after becoming "increasingly frustrated" with the organization's bureaucracy.
Scott Carr, a community member of OpenOffice.org, acknowledges he has lost two key members of his already-small documentation team.
"I understand where some of [the criticism] is coming from," he said.
Enter IBM, accompanied by Symphony
So does IBM Corp., which is joining OpenOffice.org and creating its own free version called Lotus Symphony, aimed at its enterprise and government customers.
"We think that there's a broad-based consensus that some governance and structural changes are in order that would make the OpenOffice project more attractive to others," Doug Heintzman, director of strategy for IBM's Lotus Software, said in an interview last week. "It's no secret that this has been an issue for us for some time, and we haven't viewed OpenOffice.org as being as healthy as it might be in this respect."
Besides committing 35 China developers to OpenOffice.org, IBM plans to make its voice heard -- immediately and loudly. IBM will "work within the leadership structure that exists," said Sean Poulley, vice president of business and strategy in IBM's Lotus Software division. "But we will take our rightful leadership position in the community along with Sun and others."
In e-mailed comments, Heintzman said his criticisms about the situation have been made openly.
"We think that Open Office has quite a bit of potential and would love to see it move to the independent foundation that was promised in the press release back when Sun originally announced OpenOffice," he said. "We think that there are plenty of existing models of communities, [such as] Apache and Eclipse, that we can look to as models of open governance, copyright aggregation and licensing regimes that would make the code much more relevant to a much larger set of potential contributors and implementers of the technology....
"Obviously, by joining we do believe that the organization is important and has potential," he wrote. "I think that new voices at the table, including IBM's, will help the organization become more efficient and relevant to a greater audience.... Our primary reason for joining was to contribute to the community and leverage the work that the community produces.... I think it is true there are many areas worthy of improvement and I sincerely hope we can work on those.... I hope the story coming out of Barcelona isn't a dysfunctional community story, but rather a [story about a] potentially significant and meaningful community with considerable potential that has lots of room for improvement...."
Suarez-Potts did not return repeated requests for comment. But Erwin Tenhumberg, community development and marketing manager for OpenOffice.org and a Sun employee in its Hamburg, Germany office where OpenOffice / StarOffice development is centered, acknowledged the criticism.
"There's a long tradition at Sun of not paying attention to outside contributors because there weren't many for a long time," said Tenhumberg, who estimated that 90 percent of the programming in OpenOffice 2.0, the last major release from two years ago, was done by Sun employees.
Alexandro Colorado, who helps run a project to create a Spanish-language version of OpenOffice, said while many of the criticisms leveled OpenOffice.org's management are valid, "there are other sides of the story than [just] pure bashing."
He blamed "exponential" growth in OpenOffice's code base, a situation that has been partly corrected after the group began to limit development in the core OpenOffice code and ask developers to build new features in the form of "extensions," a model successfully used by the Firefox web browser.
"So far we have exciting extensions like Google Docs integration with OpenOffice.org," Colorado wrote in an e-mail. "This would have taken ages to integrate into the code base and now it's available in a matter of weeks."
Another OpenOffice.org community developer, Charles H. Schulz, says that much of the criticism is simply misplaced.
"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."