Many words have been expended on this situation. I don’t have an awful lot to add about the project side of things: I think it’s immensely sad that is being forked again (this is much more clearly a fork than LibreOffice was), but fundamentally all actors within the free software world are autonomous and have free will. Such is life.

(this is a deeply opinionated blog post. feel free to skip it, take it with a grain of salt, whatever.)

A lot of people are talking about this as mainly a license issue, with one commentator spelling it out: “It will be interesting to see, after the first wild set of commentary flies, which project – and which license – that various developers and corporations alike choose to actively support” (the juxtaposition of the opinion and the title of the blog is especially delicious). After all, it’s easy to see this as a license show-down: given the same code base, and two different licensing strategies, which will succeed? Sadly, it’s not really a race LibreOffice can “win”: if that project is more successful, well, they had a head-start, didn’t they.

I don’t think much of this is really relevant. I’m not sure IBM care too much about who develops the code, and I don’t think an LGPL’d code base would fundamentally stop them from shipping a proprietary product if that is what they wanted to do (it makes it harder, of course). I actually think this is all about OpenDocument Format, which is a subject virtually no-one has raised.

If you look at the OASIS TC, you can see it’s pretty obviously dominated by Oracle (was: Sun) and IBM. There are a few representatives of various other companies and open-source projects, but fundamentally this is a closed shop with a pay-to-play rule which means you have to pony up to join. The v1.2 spec – which has been used by since 2008 – has only just managed to crawl out as a committee specification, incredibly late. What this means for OpenDocument v1.2 documents as read/written by 3.0, who knows. But with Oracle fading into the sunset (sorry), large chunks like OpenFormula finally done, maybe v1.3 will actually show up on time.

So here’s where this really matters. ODF is nothing if not a stick with which to beat that other vendor. And having a large say in ODF is not really anything unless you have implementations around, and until now, has not only been a leading ODF implementation, but effectively the reference implementation of ODF. This is what IBM really want control of: this is why they’re so involved in the TC, and this is the reason for the sudden outburst of passion for (all in my opinion, obviously). They almost cannot allow LibreOffice to obtain the de facto mantle of “reference implementation”: ODF as a standard is supposed to follow implementation, and obviously IBM (and most of the rest of the TC, for that matter) have no skin in the LO game. Worse, I don’t think they want LO adding and changing features  in ways which necessarily touch ODF: imagine if it had been LO only who had released ODF1.2 support in 2008. This is a very real risk – there are still critical features missing from ODF (want CMYK support do you?!) and control of the TC alone means precious little without the reference implementation.

Is this going to be a bad thing overall? My suspicion is that this isn’t going to be a terribly short-lived fork; I think IBM’s decision to move to Apache (well, Oracle’s, but we know whose advice they were following) is going to have a long term impact. It’s already pretty easy to see how the divisiveness has taken hold:

  • the AOOo project has recently discovered that used to solicit donations, and don’t sound amazingly thrilled about how it was set up. It’s quite intriguing to watch people like Rob Weir claim that the community has moved to Apache, when the people at Apache seem to have little idea about how OOo operated, where money came from, who spent it, etc. It’s a sad day when bystanders to your project (such as myself) appear to know more than the project leaders. (If someone on the Apache list could also let them know that the SPI holds c. $20k on their behalf, that might be a good idea – they don’t seem to have figured that at the time of writing). Anyway, the likelihood of you bring able to donate to one non-profit which supports both projects (as you can right now) seems to be diminishing fast.
  • there’s been a lot of talk about AOOo code somehow making its way into LO. I strongly suspect this isn’t going to happen that much either: I think these projects are going to diverge must faster than people realise. LO has already moved ahead and dumped a lot of old code; by the time AOOo actually gets off the ground this will be even more so. When AOOo arrives, what core features is it going to get early on? I imagine IBM will make various “donations” – they’ve already talked about accessibility, pivot tables, file format stuff. Some of that may get pulled in, other bits (like pivot tables) is probably going to be too different. After that… I think there will be some work to integrate AOOo with other Apache projects, like POI, and Apache people are quite happy using Java. I don’t think LibreOffice will want much/any of that. It’s going to take non-IBM AOOo hackers time to get up to speed enough with the core to make interesting changes, LO will be years down the road at that point.

There’s enough momentum behind AOOo that means it’s not going away any time soon. I rather suspect there isn’t enough momentum to reach “IBM escape velocity”, and sans some rather large contributions that LO is unwilling to take (which is quite possible – even for potentially desirable stuff like the Symphony UI changes) it’s difficult to see the project making the same strides LO has. More likely, there will be various “quick wins” early in the project but not much else.

It would be interesting to see someone write a full history of StarOffice from the very beginning. It has always been a project full of potential, and one particularly important to the Linux desktop even though its main userbase is on Windows, but it’s also a particularly political project in terms of what it attempts to achieve. As such it has been turned into something of a football.