FAQ: What's the future of OpenOffice.org?

Here's a look at the top questions about the office suite's future, now that Oracle has given the codebase to Apache

Oracle suddenly announced Wednesday it was submitting the codebase for OpenOffice.org to the Apache Software Foundation, ending speculation about the open-source productivity suite's fate following Oracle's recent announcement it would be transitioned to a "solely community-based project."

OpenOffice.org will start off in the ASF's incubation program as a "podling" -- the first stage in a multistep process toward becoming a top-level project within the organization.

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There are many questions remaining about OpenOffice.org's future, however, such as how it will co-exist with LibreOffice, the offshoot project formed last year by a number of OpenOffice.org community members after a falling-out with Oracle.

Here's a look at some of the top issues regarding Oracle's decision, and where OpenOffice.org goes from here.

Q: Will OpenOffice.org thrive or flounder at Apache?

Some interested parties think OpenOffice can do very well there.

"We should all be excited to see OpenOffice move to a foundation with the stature and track-record of Apache," said Rob Weir, ODF (Open Document Format) architect at IBM, in a blog post. OpenOffice.org as well as IBM's own Lotus Symphony Suite, which is based on OpenOffice.org code, support the ODF standard.

Apache hosts a diverse array of successful open-source technologies, such as the Tomcat server and Hadoop data-processing framework, Weir noted. "These diverse projects are run according to meritocratic development process, a tried and tested governance model, strong shared technical infrastructure, a pragmatic, commercially-friendly open source license, and a set of social conventions known as the 'Apache Way.'"

Hopefully, OpenOffice.org at Apache "will be viewed as a way to bring together some of the threads that have separated from the main project trunk over the last few years," said Bob Sutor, vice president for open systems and Linux at IBM, in a blog post. "This is a place where people can get together under one virtual roof and turn OpenOffice.org into what people always thought it could be."

Ultimately, as with all open-source projects, OpenOffice.org "will sink or swim on the basis of contributions," Redmonk analyst Stephen O'Grady said via email.

LibreOffice has seen decent uptake, with Linux distributions such as Ubuntu adopting it at the expense of OpenOffice.org, he noted. "That siphons off some of the available energy in the space."

But OpenOffice.org is important to companies like IBM, which users can expect will make substantial investments in continued development of the codebase. That "gives it a good chance to be viable moving forward," O'Grady said.

Q: Why did Oracle give OpenOffice.org to the Apache Foundation and not some other group, such as the Document Foundation, the group that oversees LibreOffice?

"Only Oracle can answer this, but it is clear from past history that Oracle prefers to work with foundations that have both history and long-term experience working with enterprises," O'Grady said.

He cited Oracle's recent decision to donate code for the Hudson continuous integration system to the Eclipse Foundation. Similar to OpenOffice.org, a group of Hudson developers split off from Oracle with an offshoot or "fork" of the codebase called Jenkins.

"And just as in the case of Hudson, [Oracle] chose not to ultimately donate the code to the group that forked it," O'Grady added. "As for why Apache specifically, they have the requisite history of working with vendors, and IBM for one certainly has a preference for their more permissive licensing style."

Some are seeing Oracle's decision as a snub to the Document Foundation, but Oracle's relationship with the ASF may also be feeling some tensions. Last month, Oracle subpoenaed the ASF, seeking documents in connection with its ongoing Java patent lawsuit against Google. The ASF also resigned from the Java SE/EE Executive Committee last year.

"This may show that the bad blood between Oracle and the Document Foundation is worse than any issues between Oracle and The Apache Foundation," 451 Group analyst Jay Lyman said.

Oracle couldn't immediately provide comment on underlying reasons for its decision.

Q: While the Document Foundation has expressed interest in "reuniting" OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice "into a single community of equals" now that Oracle is gone, what are the potential challenges?

"The area which needs to be worked on is, at least in my mind, 'healing' the rift between the communities," ASF president Jim Jagielski said via email. "There is still quite a bit of hurt feelings, and TDF sees the ASF as 'getting' the code and the trademark as a slap; I can't say I don't blame them.

"But basically, when you look at it, the donation of the code by Oracle to a foundation dedicated to open source is pretty much exactly what they wanted; it just didn't happen in the timeframe they hoped nor to the foundation they wanted," he added. "So all of this implies that the TDF [should] truly feel welcomed and congratulated for doing all they did to help encourage and foster Oracle's action."

Overall, "we do expect ... the Apache [OpenOffice.org] podling and the LibreOffice project to have very close cooperation," Jagielski added.

For its part, while noting there are some differences in style between the two organizations, the Document Foundation said Wednesday it sees one clear upside of working with ASF.

"On the bright side, one benefit of this arrangement is the potential for future-proof licensing. The Apache License is compatible with both the LGPLv3+ and MPL licenses, allowing TDF future flexibility to move the entire codebase, to MPLv2 or future LGPL license versions," the group said.

The ASF's licensing model may also "free up the potential for even more [OpenOffice.org]-based offerings, particularly commercial and paid offerings, so that may bring some interesting participants and/or subcommunities to the table," 451 Group's Lyman said.

Q: Can both OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice be viable, independent projects?

Development on LibreOffice has seemed to proceed quickly and steadily since the Document Foundation was formed last year.

Meanwhile, although OpenOffice.org faces a new beginning of sorts at the ASF, the firm support of vendors as large as IBM bodes well for its future.

Redmonk's O'Grady took a measured view of the situation.

"In the near term, both remain credible, adopted projects," he said. "In the longer term, it's unclear that the market will support two large, competing office productivity suites with nearly identical feature sets."

That scenario may not come to pass, of course, if the pledged cooperation by both the ASF and Document Foundation comes together.

Q: Now that Oracle has dropped commercial versions of OpenOffice.org, what might the future hold for customers or companies who want a commercial, supported version?

There will be a number of options, O'Grady predicted. "Oracle's retreat from this market will undoubtedly create commercial opportunities for one or more players to support existing [OpemOffice.org] users," he said. IBM will also presumably look to migrate users over to its Symphony suite.

But other users may take the opportunity to instead switch to Web-based alternatives, such as Google Docs, he added.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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