LibreOffice cash-for-code strategy tests open source ethic

In an unusual, controversial move, the Document Foundation is taking bids for paid development of LibreOffice for Android

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Root of all evil?

Communities with a business model go by another name: businesses. While there are costs for a community -- hosting, domain names, and so on -- they are limited and should be easy to cover from small contributions by the project participants and users. (Of course, it's always smart to maintain a cash reserve to avoid unexpected problems.)

At issue here is the fact that it is very unusual for open source foundations to spend money on the development of code. In fact, I recommend against it, as there is a great risk of chilling the contributions of people who are not being paid, as research has shown.

As it stands, TDF is faced with a mixed blessing: It has substantial funds, but as a charity, it is legally obligated to spend those funds over the next year or so. To this end, TDF has thus far been acting intelligently. It has invested in development infrastructure, especially for testing. It has hired sys admin and administrative staff. It has backed community activities. But there is still a big pot of cash left over, with the clock ticking.

Knowing it's unwise to spend money where the community has extrinsic motivations, TDF has turned to the Android port. As outlined above, extrinsic motivations are few, and demand for an Android version of LibreOffice, already high, will surely grow as governments standardize on Open Document Format for communications.

Thus, TDF is spending money in hopes of bootstrapping a necessary new community within its purview. Florian Effenberger, executive director at TDF, told me:

In order to accommodate [the need for an Android app] within a reasonable timeframe, we must bootstrap a good-enough version to attract skills, which at the moment do not seem to be available inside the LibreOffice community. We see the tender as a first step toward a more diverse developer's community, capable of ensuring the future of LibreOffice both on the desktop and on mobile platforms. The Board of Directors will oversee the tender process with extreme care, to avoid unwanted side effects.

Having tried to get active participation in an Android port for quite a while with little effect, TDF seem to have confirmed there are few developers with an extrinsic motivation who will be impacted by a tender. The tender is for a one-off work item; while the developer involved will be the early and acknowledged expert in the code, they are not guaranteed long-term income from TDF. Effenberger told me:

The scope of the tender is large enough for a group of developers, which reduces the risk that the community perceives the opportunity as limited to just a couple of individuals. ... This does not mean that a company already investing in LibreOffice development cannot hire hackers with the appropriate skills and participate in the tender.

That means other developers will still be able to bring their own extrinsic interests to the project and collaborate. Spending a significant sum of money thus seems a smart move. The whole activity is a gamble, but if it works, it could at last bring a viable open source document solution to the burgeoning tablet market. The biggest question seems to be: Will anyone bid to do the work?

This article, "LibreOffice cash-for-code strategy tests open source ethic," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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