Fans of the open source desktop productivity suite OpenOffice.org breathed a sigh of relief this week, when a group of prominent developers announced they're breaking ties with Oracle and launching a new fork of the suite, to be known as LibreOffice. The new suite will be managed by an independent organization known as the Document Foundation. Whether the Document Foundation will be able to sustain LibreOffice as a significant competitor to Microsoft Office, however, remains an open question.
Among the skeptics is none other than the "father of Java" himself, James Gosling. Like many other former Sun employees, Gosling left Oracle earlier this year, citing conflicts with the database giant's management style and culture. Since then he has been increasingly critical of Oracle and its handling of the various open source properties it gained through the purchase of Sun -- in particular, the Java platform itself.
Naturally he's a big fan of the open source model, as he explained in a recent interview for the Basement Coders podcast. "The place where it falls apart, though," Gosling says, "is for desktop software."
History seems to support Gosling's view. While there are numerous high-quality open source desktop applications available, few of them -- with the exception of Firefox, perhaps -- have caught on with the mainstream public. Because open source applications are generally available free of charge, this raises troubling questions about the public's perception of the quality, efficacy, and value of open source desktop software. Can the open source model can really sustain desktop application development, or is open source desktop software a failed proposition?
Where are the Office-killers?
There's an idea out there that Microsoft Office is overwrought bloatware, that it serves no purpose but to lock customers into the Windows world, and that the market desperately needs a replacement. I must come clean: As a die-hard Microsoft Office user myself, I don't necessarily agree. But if we accept that competition is a positive force in any market, the market for desktop productivity suites is a troubled one.