In Oracle's fight with open source, the good guys won -- this time

Larry Ellison's greedy attempt to commercialize OpenOffice has failed, but don't expect him to rethink his views on open source

Larry Ellison has his $1 billion-plus bank account, his 450-foot yacht, and his five-acre private lake on the grounds of his sprawling, $200 million faux Japanese palace. But he no longer has OpenOffice, and what a satisfying development that is. Oracle's decision to give up on commercial exploiting of the open source productivity suite and turn over the code to "a purely community-based open source project" is a fitting end to the ugly coda that followed the death of Sun Microsystems and a triumph of creativity over greed.

Ellison's treatment of open source since the Sun acquisition has been nothing short of reprehensible, and it made me really mad. The man who promised to be a good steward to Sun's treasure trove of technology tried to pull a fast one by taking OpenOffice, a very viable and free alternative to Microsoft's bloated, way-too-expensive Microsoft Office, and turning it just another commercial product.

[ Relive the rise and fall of Sun in InfoWorld's slideshow. | Get the inside view on open source from Savio Rodrigues. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog and InfoWorld Daily newsletter. ]

Maybe, just maybe, you could find an excuse for that. After all, Oracle did pay $7.4 billion for the faltering Sun in 2009. But there was absolutely no excuse for the way OpenOffice developers were treated -- or for pulling the Sun ODF plug-in. The free plug-in ensured document capability between Microsoft Office and OpenOffice. Instead, Oracle released Oracle ODF Plug-In for Microsoft Office and slapped a $90 price tag on it, with a minimum order of 100 units -- a move that effectively orphaned users who didn't want to pay the premium.

Think of the problems that caused for IT shops that had pushed OpenOffice as a money-saving alternative. (Links to the Oracle plug-in, as well as to other Oracle Open Office links, now appear to be dead.)

Even Microsoft isn't this greedy

Even Microsoft doesn't do that. Users of old versions of Office can simply down load a free compatibility pack and work reasonably well with documents created in new versions. When a company makes Microsoft look like a shining example of corporate responsibility, that's a shocking image.

OpenOffice is an outgrowth of the StarOffice suite made by the German company StarDivision. Sun bought StarDivision in 1999 and launched -- based on StarOffice -- in 2000. In those days, then-CEO Scott McNeely was fanatically anti-Microsoft; he even forbade Sun employees and contractors (I was one of them) from using Microsoft Office at work.

To be fair, some developers felt that Sun could be terribly bureaucratic in its management of open source projects, and there was sentiment in favor of forking OpenOffice even before its acquisition by Sun. But the tension between Sun and the open source community wasn't in the same league as the unpleasantness (that's the polite term) at Oracle.

The end of Ellison's stranglehold on OpenOffice really began last year, when key contributors formed the Document Foundation and forked the suite, creating LibreOffice (check out InfoWorld's comparison of Open Office and Libreoffice). The new group was supported by key companies such as Red Hat, Novell, Google, and Canonical. Although the move was clearly a reaction to Oracle's management of the open source projects it inherited, Oracle was still invited to join the Document Foundation. Not surprisingly, it declined.

Oracle then went even further, demanding that Document Foundation members that had seats on the board step down from their elected leadership roles, which they did, leaving Oracle in control.

Unfortunately for Ellison, sales of his company's version of OpenOffice appeared to be minimal. I can't prove that because Oracle doesn't break out sales figures for individual products and Wall Street analysts wouldn't have bothered to estimate them, but I'm willing to take bets. After all, I seriously doubt that Ellison had an attack of conscience.

Will Oracle learn from its defeat?
Oracle, of course, still claims that it remains committed to open source. In a statement announcing the decision to stop commercializing OpenOffice, Oracle chief architect Edward Screven said, "Oracle is focused on Linux and MySQL because both of these products have won broad-based adoption among commercial and government customers." (Oracle has not responded to my requests for comment.) I suspect the meaningful difference in Oracle's view between Linux and MySQL on one side and OpenOffice on the other is that Linux and MySQL are gateways to buying more Oracle products, whereas OpenOffice is not.

We'll see what Oracle does in the future, but there's a lot more tension between it and the open source community over issues that have nothing directly to do with OpenOffice. In February, for example, unhappy coders of the Hudson developer community voted to change the project name and reassert community governance over the project.

I believe the Hudson issue makes it very clear that the issue was never OpenOffice -- but Oracle's willingness to assume Sun's mantle of protector of Sun's open source technology. It's clear that Oracle's intention is not to protect and nurture open source but to extract as much value from Sun's technology (open source or not) and toss out the rest.

Ironically, I believe the open source community wanted the Sun acquisition to succeed. After all, when Ellison attended JavaOne the year he acquired Sun, he was greeted with a standing ovation. Now we know how much those good wishes really meant to him.

Still, it's important to see that Oracle lost the fight over OpenOffice. It doesn't happen all that often in the technology industry, but this time, the good guys won.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so that all our readers can share them, or reach me at Follow me on Twitter at BSnyderSF.

This article, "In Oracle's fight with open source, the good guys won -- this time," was originally published by Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

How to choose a low-code development platform