OpenOffice won't fork -- for now

In spite of a bitter battle between Novell and Sun developers, OpenOffice won’t fork – at least for now.That's the consensus among several OpenOffice developers who are locked in a bitter dispute with Sun over how the open source project is governed but who nevertheless agree that a fork would be the worst outcome for a project that has enough difficulty competing against Microsoft Office let alone Google Apps and other online services in the future.

In spite of a bitter battle between Novell and Sun developers, OpenOffice won’t fork – at least for now.

That's the consensus among several OpenOffice developers who are locked in a bitter dispute with Sun over how the open source project is governed but who nevertheless agree that a fork would be the worst outcome for a project that has enough difficulty competing against Microsoft Office let alone Google Apps and other online services in the future.

"It's not something I want to see. It's not an ideal outcome," said Michael Meeks, a distinguished engineer at Novell and an OpenOffice developer who maintains that an OpenOffice fork is not in the works and won’t happen -- as long as Sun establishes an independent non-profit foundation like that of Mozilla or Apache to oversee OpenOffice decisions.

Concerns about a possible fork arose because the Go-OO build, an OpenOffice implementation maintained by Meeks and others, decided to include a feature that Sun rejected for inclusion in the next OpenOffice because the developer refused to sign Sun’s contributor agreement.

Meeks said in an interview that it is customary for Go-OO to include new technologies and that the latest build should not be viewed as a fork. But he hinted that a fork is not out of the question if Sun doesn’t loosen its grip on the OpenOffice project.

“It’s clear that if Sun continues to refuse to include changes under their own license then you will see a growing set of changes that can’t be included in OpenOffice, and then we’d see that delta increasing over time. Eventually, users can understand they can get a better OpenOffice than at OpenOffice.org," Meeks said this week during a telephone interview.

Them’s fightin’ words?

Sun, for its part, is fighting back, and has characterized the controversy as a baseless attack by a rival seeking competitive advantage. Most of the vocal opponents are Novell employees.

Sun open source guru Simon Phipps also argues that OpenOffice.org is released under the LGPL, that its provisions fall under the normal bounds of community norms and that the recently enacted Sun Contributor Agreement (which replaces the Joint Contributor Agreement) does not require outside developers to surrender their copyright.

In a recent blog, OpenOffice head Jim Parkinson pointed out that Sun recently revised the Contributor Agreement to address some issues raised by the community and established OpenOffice.org Community Advisory Board designed to address and mediate contributor issues.

The new board will hold its first meeting on October 29, Sun said this week. Still Sun’s Parkinson made it clear in an e-mail response that it has no intention of changing the governance of the project, which is led by the OpenOffice Community Council.

“Out of respect to the members of the newly created OpenOffice.org Community Advisory Board and the process, we cannot comment about the structure and boundaries of the Board until after its first meeting, which is the last week of October,” Parkinson said in a company-issued statement. “The Board will not manage the project's daily affairs, nor will it replace the OpenOffice.org's existing governing body, the Community Council. The council will continue to do what it has done so well: resolve community issues and conflicts, set community goals, manage community funds, and most important, give a voice to the hundreds of thousands who make up the OpenOffice.org community.”

Four out of five of the project leads of the Community Council are Sun employees.

Such tensions will naturally arise as proprietary companies step into the open source world. Novell may indeed relish the opportunity to take a poke at Sun but nevertheless challenging the authority and the powers-that-be is both healthy and appropriate.

Meeks and others took issue with Sun’s authority over the project and its (original and revised) contributor agreements following Sun's decision to reject a proposed contribution to the project – a spreadsheet Calc Solver developed by Kohei Yoshida, also a Novell employee, because he refused to sign Sun’s contributor agreement.

Yoshida released his Calc Solver functionality under the LGPL and requested that Sun include it as an OpenOffice extension. Sun declined, and then announced at the OpenOffice.org conference in Barcelona, Spain last month that it would develop its own Calc Solver, a move that infuriated Yoshida and others who say there’s no technical or logistical reason for the code to be dismissed since Sun has approved other LGPL released extensions for OpenOffice in the past.

“There is already a fair amount of non Sun owned LGPL code used within StarOffice as well as in OpenOffice.org so I did not think my request was that unreasonable," Yoshida said in an e-mail interview. "But why does the trouble of re-implementing it from scratch outweigh a slight compromise in code ownership? That I have a hard time understanding."

Phipps claims that both Meeks and Yoshida supported the Joint Copyright Assignment (JCA) in the past and are well aware that Sun requires such agreements to be signed in order to function as the legal steward of the code and guarantee protected use for wary corporate customers. He adds that the more liberal and recently revised Sun Contributor Agreement resolves any concerns about the shared ownership of the code.

Some of the Novell developers, and others, say, however, the new shared agreement looks good on paper but does little to address the fact that Sun is gaining ownership over all the code of an open source project. They suggest that Sun should not have unilateral power over which code gets accepted and which does not because outside developers, including Novell, now contribute a large share of code to OpenOffice, notably the recent integration of Microsoft Office macro translators.

Meeks also pointed out that Sun ought not compare its OpenOffice norms and guidelines to those of MySQL, Apache and Mozilla norms because it is a for-profit proprietary software company. In a recent interview, Novell vice president of engineering Miguel de Icaza said developers would not be bothered so much if Sun were trying to protect its own homegrown features such as ZFS. But as the project grows, authority should be more distributed, he suggested.

It is not clear how these issues will be resolved but no one wants an OpenOffice fork.

Yoshida, for his part, insists that he does not want to see an OpenOffice fork. “The answer is no. My personal feelings aside, I don’t think it’s in anybody’s best interest to fragement our scarce development resources,” he said, noting the Go-OO build is nothing new and is used by several Linux distributors.

“It’s not a fork. That said, people tend to frame the Go-OO build as a fork of OpenOffice.org. Maybe they really wants to see a fork of Openoffice to set it free from Sun’s single corporate vision and control? I don’t know. But that’s not what’s happening.”

Sun declined to release a list of those invited to the board and meeting later this month. But it’s bound to be a colorful gathering, based on the war of words played out on the web.

In his blast at Novell's Meeks, Phipps points to great strides made by OpenOffice over the past several months, including new participation by Red Flag 2000 and IBM.

“In the midst of all this, I see my friend Michael Meeks has been challenging Sun in a creative way - it even made Slashdot today. I remember the days when Michael used to enthusiastically encourage OpenOffice.org community members to sign the contributor agreement, as recently as last December...,” Phipps wrote on his blog recently, questioning Mr Meeks' motives. It's a shame Michael has chosen now - a turning point in OpenOffice.org and a moment when Sun has radically improved the SCA in response to broad feedback from many communities - as a time to mount a fresh challenge to Sun that by implication also harms OpenOffice.org. And when you distill out all the details, that's what this turns out to be even by Michael's admission - a competitive issue, not a community one."

Meeks shot back hard at that allegation, and said he only wants Sun to fork over absolute control over the OpenOffice decision making.

"I disagree with that analysis," Mr Meeks said in the telephone interview this week. "Sun's contributed a ton to OpenOffice and I'm not questioning Sun's commitment but how they structure it and why they want to own everything that is contributed to the project. The effect of the [SCA] shared assignments is to ensure that there's only one copyright owner for the entire work and that is Sun Microsystems."