FSF works on 'fully free' OpenOffice

Concerns that OpenOffice will be trapped into using Sun's proprietary implementation of Java have lead the Free Software Foundation to improve its own version

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is hoping to break OpenOffice.org's dependency on Sun's implementation of Java.

The next version of the open source productivity application, which is due for release at the end of June, includes a few features that require a Java Runtime Environment (JRE), according to John McCreesh, who helps to run the marketing for OpenOffice.org.

The main JRE available at present is a proprietary implementation produced by Sun Microsystems. Although the Sun JRE can be downloaded free of charge, it is not considered 'fully free' by free-software advocates as users that download the JRE must adhere to Sun's licence conditions.

FSF founder Richard Stallman told ZDNet UK on Tuesday that as the upcoming version of OpenOffice is dependent on Java, the FSF cannot recommend it "on ethical grounds". The FSF decided that the best solution to this problem would be to improve its free version of the Java platform — the GNU Compiler for Java (GCJ), which compiles Java into bytecode or native machine code, and the GNU Classpath, which provides Java class libraries.

Mark Wielaard, the maintainer of the GNU Classpath project, said these projects are likely to be fully compatible with the Java code in OpenOffice.org within a few months.

"We already have most of it working — we have the things working and compiling that are really essential," said Wielaard. "I think it will be two or three months work until we feel confident that it is completely done."

McCreesh said the OpenOffice.org team is happy for free software developers to work on a free Java platform, but hopes that it will not rewrite code within OpenOffice.org as this could lead to the project forking.

"We understand where the free software community is coming from," said McCreesh. "We're quite comfortable if they're working on a Java compiler, we're not keen on them working on rewriting Java code to C as this would create a fork."

Wielaard said the FSF plans to concentrate on improving GCJ or providing optional patches, but a few features may require changes to the OpenOffice code. "We probably won't be able to use GCJ to provide accessibility support," he said. "We will probably write it directly using GNOME [a GNU/Linux desktop environment] accessibility support, in which case I assume it will be added to the OpenOffice codebase."

Although the FSF is improving its Java compiler to ensure that there is a "fully free" build of OpenOffice that can be used on the GNU/Linux operating system, it will not encourage other free software projects to use the Java programming language.

"We still don't recommend people use the Java programming language because we feel it's too easy to get trapped in a proprietary implementation," said Wielaard.