Has Apache lost its way?

Complaints of stricture over structure, signs of technical prowess on the wane -- the best days of the Apache Software Foundation may be behind

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Project politics and its discontents

The ASF has taken heat of late based on how specific projects have been handled. Case in point: OpenOffice.org, which was donated to the ASF by Oracle in June 2011.

Four months after OpenOffice.org changed hands, the ASF published a statement to quell fears about the future of the project and to forestall some criticism already thrown its way. The statement claimed "destructive statements have been published by both members of the greater FOSS community and former contributors to the original OpenOffice.org product, suggesting that the project has failed during the 18 weeks since its acceptance into the Apache Incubator. We understand that stakeholders of a project with a 10+-year history -- be they former product managers or casual users -- may be unfamiliar with the Apache Way and question its methods." Apache went on to cite the Subversion and SpamAssassin projects as "proof that the Apache Way works."

Some criticism might have been due to the way the change in ownership of OpenOffice.org apparently delayed the software's release schedule. A beta of version 3.4 had been offered in April 2011, but the full-blown 3.4 release wouldn't come out until May of the following year. (Version 4.0, with major code contributions from IBM, was released in July 2013.)

Part of the delay was due to relicensing the suite under the Apache license, a time-consuming process. But some of it was more directly attributable to OpenOffice.org, regardless of who sponsors it, having a release-when-ready approach rather than dropping new versions on any fixed schedule. By contrast, the OpenOffice.org sister project, LibreOffice, drops new releases every six months under the LGPL.

Another recent issue involved the retirement of one of the Foundation's smaller software projects, the Apache C++ Standard Library project. Active since 2005, this project had seen its last revision in mid-2008. The chair for the project, Jim Jagielski, stepped down at the end of May 2013; in July, the ASF board voted to retire the project to the Apache Attic, a space "to provide process and solutions to make it clear when an Apache project has reached its end of life."

This move inspired the ire of one of the project's other contributors, Christian Bergström, who had previously volunteered to take over as project chair. He derided the board's choice as "a stupid decision made by bureaucrats" and claimed, "The project still has potential and the lack of vision and belief from the 'board' that those interested could actually achieve it -- it's flat out disappointing." (Bergström declined to comment for this article.)

Jagielski, when asked about Bergström's complaints, replied: "The Apache C++ Standard Library was given numerous opportunities to 'reboot' itself and re-energize the community, but the sad fact is that it was never able to accomplish it." He also noted that Bergström didn't take the right kind of initiative: "As the mailing list and code repo logs show, there was no activity of merit at all [in the project] for a long, long time, and Mr. Bergström certainly had plenty of opportunity to provide some evidence of that potential; even some code commits from him and others would have been a factor."

Brockmeier also points out that retiring a project to the Attic is not meant to be a death sentence. "Retiring projects is one of the reasons I like Apache's approach overall," he says. "Pushing a project into the Attic doesn't in any way hinder people using the code or reviving development at a later date."

Some Attic-bound projects have been moved into new directions. Apache Avalon, for instance, has since become a whole host of subprojects, some maintained by other entities (such as Loom). On the other hand, Apache Harmony, an open source implementation of Java, was sent to the Attic in 2011. (OpenJDK, an entirely separate project along the same lines started by Oracle, has more or less eclipsed Harmony's place.)

Apache Foundation governance is also little guard against ensuring the diversity of a project community. Apache Harmony was largely sponsored by IBM, and the project was Attic-bound when IBM left Harmony for OpenJDK -- possibly out of fear of being sued by Oracle. According to an article by Gavin Clarke of the Register, all this took place without IBM once consulting the ASF to help ease the transition.

“IBM,” Clarke wrote at the time, “is not under any actual obligation to consult the board [in such circumstances], under the rules of the ASF” -- a sign of how those rules need continued scrutiny and re-evaluation to be relevant -- and to ensure that a given project isn’t at the mercy of developers who represent another, single interest.

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