IBM throws its source code and support behind OpenOffice

Don't write off OpenOffice for LibreOffice quite yet. IBM's donating all of its IBM Lotus Symphony office suite code to the new Apache OpenOffice.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

Of all the companies that support OpenOffice, there were only two that didn't support the LibreOffice fork: Oracle and IBM. I could understand Oracle. While Larry Ellison, Oracle's CEO, didn't really care about OpenOffice--after all Oracle essentially gave OpenOffice away to The Apache Foundation--I also know that Ellison wasn't going to let The Document Foundation, LibreOffice's parent organization, dictate terms to him. But, I've never quite understood why IBM didn't help create LibreOffice. Be that as it may, IBM will be announcing tomorrow that it's donating essentially all its IBM Lotus Symphony source code and resources to Apache's OpenOffice project.

In an e-mail to the Apache OpenOffice e-mail list, IBM's Open Document Format (ODF) architect Rob Weir let the cat out of the bag that IBM would be putting its Symphony code and resources behind OpenOffice.

Weir wrote, "IBM Lotus Symphony, our free (as in beer) product which is based on OOo. [OpenOffice.org] … IBM [has] not been exemplary community members when it came to OpenOffice.org. This wasn't necessarily by design, but for various reasons, that was the effect. Yes, we participated in various community councils, and sponsored conferences and worked together on standards. But when it came down to the code, we maintained Symphony essentially as a fork, and although we occasionally contributed code back, we did not do this well, or often."

So, with this "fresh start at Apache" IBM is "going to contribute the standalone version of Lotus Symphony to the Apache OpenOffice.org project, under the Apache 2.0 license. We'll also work with project members to prioritize which pieces make sense to integrate into OpenOffice. For example, we've already done a lot of work with replacing GPL/LPGL dependencies. Using the Symphony code could help accelerate that work and get us to an AOOo [Apache OpenOffice.Org) release faster. We've already converted the help files to DITA [Darwin Information Typing Architecture], which could help accelerate that work, if we chose to go in that direction."

I'm told by sources close to IBM that IBM will be donating more than 3-million lines of Symphony source code to the Apache OpenOffice project. IBM will also be adding developers to work with the OpenOffice community to assess how Symphony should be integrated into OpenOffice. It seems IBM will also continue their own in-house Symphony development because they're talking about making future changes to Symphony available to OpenOffice.

According to Weir, IBM, "Aside from the work that would help accelerate getting AOOo to our first release, we've also added other features that I think we should consider merging in. For example, the IAccessible2 work which helps Symphony work better with assistive technology."

In addition, "We've also added [Visual Basic for Applications] VBA macro support, which is great for MS Office interoperability." Weir continued, "We've done some really good UI [user interface] work. I invite you to download Symphony and take a closer look at this. Yes, it is different from what OOo has today. And a move of that magnitude has an impact on documentation and translations as well. But the feedback we've received from customers and reviewers is very positive. Do we integrate parts of the Symphony UI? That is something for the project to discuss and decide on."

"Finally, we will be proposing a new incubation project at Apache, for the ODF Toolkit. These Java libraries enable new kinds of lightweight document processing applications. We think this would work well as an Apache project, and we look forward to moving that into incubation and developing that complementary project forward."

This is a lot to work on. I certainly hope IBM is putting people on it, because one of my concerns with Apache taking over a project as massive as OpenOffice was could Apache summon up the resources they'd need to deal with it.

IBM isn't trying to dictate terms here by the by. As Bob Sutor, IBM's VP of WebSphere, wrote in his blog, IBM is donating the Symphony code "'for consideration.' Members of the OpenOffice 'podling' at Apache, including folks who are IBM employees, will get to look at the changes and improvements that IBM made to OpenOffice code when it was incorporated into Symphony. If the podling members decide to use it, great! If they decide to do something else, so be it, that's the way open source communities work."

As for LibreOffice? Well, in June, Weir wrote, "LibreOffice supporters see Apache OpenOffice as a mortal threat to their project since its gain comes only at their expense." He sees this as a fallacy.

Weir went on, "And in the real world, outside of FOSS [free and open-source software] blogs, the world runs predominately Microsoft Office, a proprietary set of applications. The other proprietary applications, like Corel WordPerfect and Google Docs and Apple iWork, combined with MS Office represent well over 90% of the market. Open source, of all varieties, including LibreOffice, is rather small."

"So rather than fighting over the bottom 5%, I think we should set our sights on a more transformative engagement with the market. This need not be a zero-sum, I-Win/You-Lose situation. OpenOffice and LibreOffice can both win. OpenOffice and LibreOffice and Calligra Suite and AbiWord and Gnumeric can all gain users at the same time. And this can happen at the same time that mixed-source applications based upon OpenOffice, like Lotus Symphony, also grow and gain users."

Regardless of how you feel about his stance on LibreOffice vs. OpenOffice, we'll soon see how well Apache and IBM, and OpenOffice and Lotus Symphony, can work together to grow open-source office suites beyond that 5%.

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