OpenOffice.org – a candidate for a 501(c)6?

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?

10 Responses

  1. JavaFan Says:

    And in a much shorter space of time than Eclipse has been ‘free’ of IBM, NetBeans has arguably become the better open source IDE under the auspices of Sun. So it’s all swings (no pun intended) and roundabouts, really.

  2. Patrick Wagstrom Says:

    Dave,

    Some of the statements about Eclipse portray the most common misconceptions about the community and projects — namely that Eclipse is only the IDE. While it is true that the primary project within Eclipse is the IDE and associated other tools (CDT, WTP, DTP, etc), there’s much more going on there than just IDE development.

    In fact, the biggest thing that happened as a result of Eclipse becoming a foundation is that Eclipse became more than just an IDE. By allowing other firms to take concrete roles in the roadmapping process and governance, they’ve built an ecosystem that does some crazy cool stuff that a project that was solely stewarded by IBM would never have done. Have you seen some of the things being done with identity management (Higgins), AJAX (RAP), data storage (Aperi), server side applications (Equinox), or delivering new desktop applications (RCP)? It’s pretty remarkable and many have little involvement from IBM. Indeed, some of these projects, which are high profile in the Eclipse community, are founded and managed by very small firms — it’s a great way to break into a market.

    Opening up Eclipse as a foundation and IBM giving ownership of the code to the foundation, was a major step that enabled other people to do these neat things. So, yes, while it’s true that IBM does the majority of work on the core of Eclipse (JDT and SWT in particular), if you take that out the community is incredibly robust and booming — something that I really haven’t seen happening with NetBeans (perhaps I’m mistaken).

    Eclipse didn’t get there by just dumping the code to a foundation and giving some IBM employees to run it. Conscious decisions were made to hire very skilled people (Bjorn Freeman Benson, Mike Milinkovich, etc) to run the Foundation — people who are both wise and neutral. The current processes weren’t immediately apparent — reading Bjorn’s blog shows that he frequently revises the development process based on feedback and evolving situations. This is in contrast to how Sun typically manages OSS projects. Even if Sun created a 501c6 for OpenOffice, they still would need to be very careful about who they picked to run it.

    This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t do it, merely that creating a foundation isn’t automatic and it won’t magically get people contributing to the core of OpenOffice. Then again, seeing OpenOffice extended in killer new ways I can hardly imagine would be pretty sweet.

  3. Alan Horkan Says:

    Your point about “no easy way” to link to Michaels past post is true enough but if you quickly view source you will noticed that each bold date heading also contains an id parameter of the form “2008-04-28″ so sticking #2008-04-28 at the end of the address will give you a link to a specific post. (Since he had used id parameters rather than named anchors I hadn’t expected that to work but thankfully it did.)

    P.S. Now that you know you can delete this comment if you choose to update your article to include the specific links you originally wanted to provide.

  4. Rudd-O Says:

    Relinquishing control of the OO.o project would need to make sense for Sun, financially. After all, they paid big bucks for StarOffice in the beginning, and OO.o is continually advancing toward feature superiority against MSO, just as it is being controlled by Sun. I’d support this idea if Sun had already recouped the investment it made, or if Sun has OO.o as a loss leader strategy.

  5. Leo S Says:

    Code quality plays a big role. To attract independent open source developers, you need to put a lot of effort into code quality. Good comments, extremely good code reuse, and a simple build system to get people started quickly. I don’t have any personal experience with it, but by all accounts Openoffice is none of those things.

    I think Mozilla is a good example. Until recently, Firefox code was a disgusting mess. Arcane XPCOM crap, stupidly difficult ways to do really simple stuff, mounds of copy and paste spaghetti shit. I spent a lot of time trying to wrap my head around it, but it’s just not fun. Until Firefox 3. A ton of effort went into making FF3 much more developer friendly. There are tons of new APIs that are friendlier, and actually address the needs of extension developers, instead of exposing all the ugly internals of the browser. Also lots of internal cleanups of the mess. And surprise surprise, its a lot faster and leaner as well. You need to spend time on that to get unpaid people interested.

  6. P Morton Says:

    Something needs to be done to improve the rate and quality of OpenOffice development. To say that it’s surpassing in anyway way MS Office in terms of functionality and user experience is simply untrue. Its gains on Office are simply the result of the latter’s convergeance on maturity. At best it can now be described as ‘good enough’, but that itself ought not to be good enough. Sun should be thinking of how this can best be done. Whatever it happened to pay for Star Office (what was the last price paid for Netscape?) is now irrelevant; its best interests lie in product improvement.

  7. Boycott Novell » Of OpenSUSE, Xandros, and Microsoft… Says:

    [...] other more-or-less interesting news, mind this post about contributing to an agenda of ‘control freaks’ that foster a so-called community of…. I agree – letting go of control is hard. And I’ve seen many companies struggle with it – Xara, [...]

  8. Bayrak Says:

    do you know any information about this subject in other languages?

  9. Mike Milinkovich Says:

    Dave,

    There are a couple of inaccuracies in your comments about Eclipse. One is a nit and one is important.

    First, the nit. The Eclipse Foundation has been an independent 501(c)6 for four years, not five.

    The more important thing is the relative weight of IBM.

    We actually publish all of our diversity metrics on dash.eclipse.org. If you look at the number of commits from IBM, you will see that it peaked at 79% in 2002 and so far this year is running at 45%. 2007 was 40%.

    By total number of committers, they are currently at 33%.

    Those numbers are across all of the projects in the Eclipse community. Which, as Patrick Wagstrom points out has come a long way from just being a Java IDE. This is very analogous to Apache moving from a web server to a broad community of many projects.

    All of that said, I very much agree that OO.o would benefit greatly from being an independent 501(c)6. I have long felt that the Eclipse model would be an excellent example for that organization to follow. If anything, it is long overdue.

  10. Dave Neary Says:

    Hi Mike,

    Indeed, the Eclipse Foundation has become a lot like the Apache Foundation or the GNOME Foundation. We host lots of projects which are part of a bigger picture, but which aren’t really part of what people think of when they hear “Eclipse”, “Apache” or “GNOME”.

    This is a good thing, but doesn’t change the fact that IBM is still the major contributor to the Eclipse IDE.

    Let me repeat, I think that you have chosen exactly the right model for the type of project which Eclipse is/was, and that you’ve been successful because of both the model, and the amount of work the foundation has put into making that model work.

    Cheers,
    Dave.