OpenOffice.org – a candidate for a 501(c)6?April 29, 2008 10:48 am freesoftware, General
Following up from my previous post, there has been some interesting discussion in the comments and elsewhere. One issue in particular came throughh in a couple of comments.
Ted Ts’o is gushing in his praise of the Eclipse project:
Look at Eclipse; it was released by IBM in November, 2001. Within 2 years, it had something like 80 companies participating in the code development, and in less than 2.5 years, a non-profit organization was founded where IBM didn’t even have a majority of seats on the board.
And Michael Meeks brings up the subject of OpenOffice.org governance (which he has written about frequently in the past – by the way, Michael, I can’t find an easy way to link to individual journal entries of yours):
Faced with serious, persistant maladministration and injustice in the ‘communities’ Sun controls – what can you do?
Indeed, Sun has a ways to go make sure that projects they free have a non-negligible contribution from people outside their organisation, and OpenOffice.org is probably the most compelling case for an independent non-profit that they have right now. You have all the elements – significant industry buy-in to the project, multiple companies investing time, financial and human resources in building on the project.
In the comments I argue that OpenOffice.org should consider setting up a 501(c)6 (a trade association) as Eclipse did, to ensure both community and industry participation in the project:
OOo as a project is really too big to be easily accessible to a volunteer community, but the project has succeeded in gaining industry support – an initial board would doubtless include IBM, Sun and Novell as major members, but might also include CollabNet, the French ministry for the interior, maybe NeoOffice and StarXpert?
In any case, the structure of a trade organisation, which aims more to have an ecosystem than a wide-open community, seems more appropriate for a project like OOo. It provides all of the things which Michael Meeks has been calling for – an independant governing body which owns trademarks and copyright, and is answerable to companies and communities in proportion to their contributions.
I also think that it’s important to separate governance in the sense of marketing, infrastructure and industry relations from technical governance. In the case of the Eclipse Foundation, it’s important to note that IBM is still by far the greatest single contributor of code:
And while it’s absolutely correct to laud praise on IBM for Eclipse, it’s worth noting that even now, 7 years after the project has been freed and 5 years after the creation of the Eclipse Foundation, 75% of the committers work for IBM, and an even higher percentage of the check-ins come from IBM employees. So yes, the project has succeeded in establishing an independent governing body, but code talks, and IBM still talks loudest.
Aside from that, I want to reply in particular to something that Ted said in his comment:
Community governance is hard? I’m going to have to call bullshit on that. It really isn’t hard. What’s hard is letting go of control, which Sun has proven to have an extremely hard time doing.
I agree – letting go of control is hard. And I’ve seen many companies struggle with it – Xara, Wengo, Sun, to name a few, and other companies skirt the issue by unashamedly keeping control – Trolltech, MySQL, Alfresco, JBoss, SugarCRM come to mind. It’s a question of expectations. When a company says “sure, we’re happy to work with you, on our terms”, you know where you stand.
But starting a project on Sourceforge, putting 4 years worth of code on there, telling your team of (proprietary) software developers “now you commit there”, and then expecting that Poof! like magic little Code Gnomes start appearing from out of nowhere to make your project better is unrealistic. It really is the difference between “organic” (grown from scratch, by developers for developers) and “non-organic” (code is liberated en masse) projects. If you have absolutely no governance guidelines whatsoever, who’s the maintainer? The manager who manage[ds] the development team in your lab? How well does that work?