(Star) Office politics

Although still in the beta stage, Gnome's word processor offering, AbiWord, may be every bit as good as those found in StarOffice or MS Office. However, as politics heats up, it may soon be replaced by components of Sun instead.
Written by Evan Leibovitch, Contributor on
Last week I introduced you to OpenOffice, the nine million lines of source code Sun has released to the open source world from its StarOffice office productivity suite.

As I said, I'm now using StarOffice but am eagerly waiting for something better to come along, and I know it will. But not everyone sees StarOffice's opening as such a big deal. Sun's move into the open source arena is already starting to cause bad feelings as some open source bandwagon jumpers exercise their legs.

How can I put this lightly? The GNOME Foundation, clearly salivating over OpenOffice and Sun's embracing of its desktop, appears to be abandoning some of GNOME's longtime friends. In its description of the GNOME Foundation, Sun says the group has already decided that it is

"adopting OpenOffice [...] as the core of the office productivity software for GNOME Office."
Hello? Has the Foundation forgotten that GNOME Office already had some pretty darn good core components? Let's have a look a second quote from another corner of this world:

"Our goal is to become the World's Word Processor."
That piece of modesty comes not from anyone involved in OpenOffice, but rather from Martin Sevior, one of the core developers of the open source AbiWord project. AbiWord was the word processor component of GNOME Office... until Sun showed up.

Sevior says AbiWord, still in beta itself, is on track to be every bit as good a word processor as the ones in StarOffice, Microsoft Office, or any other suite. "We already do some things much better than OpenOffice," he said, indicating features such as "modeless dialogs" that don't freeze the window while you select certain options.

Sevior also notes that AbiWord is more portable -- and more ported. OpenOffice is currently only available on Windows NT, Linux and Solaris -- AbiWord is available on all those, as well as other on flavors of Unix, BSD, BeOS and QNX. AbiWord is already integrated into the GNOME desktop, and while Sun has said it wants to do the same for OpenOffice, such a conversion will take considerable time. Same for using an XML-based data file format, which Sun says is a goal for OpenOffice but that AbiWord has already implemented. And it's not even clear that the open source developers working on the OpenOffice project even consider GNOME's Gtk library a high porting priority; they may choose Mozilla's XUL framework instead.

In any case, given the complexity of the OpenOffice code, getting it to significantly change direction (to any other desktop library, for instance) is a task that will take months, maybe years. In the meantime, the GNOME Foundation seems hell-bent on kicking AbiWord off the team long before OpenOffice's GNOME integration surpasses that of AbiWord.

Back in August, AbiWord developer Dom Lachowicz approached the GNOME folks with a request to be a major participant in the GNOME Foundation. The reply he received: Pay to play.

"Basically I was told that to join the GNOME Foundation, we'd need to contribute a bunch of money to the organization," Lachowicz said. While he added that Abi developers would still be able to participate somehow even without contributing funds, they certainly had no say in the Foundation's apparent done deed of changing GNOME Office's core word processor. What's more interesting is that the Foundation isn't even fully in place -- it's not even due to have its first elections until next week.

According to GNOME developer Havoc Pennington, the decision making process so far has been limited to members of the closed gnome-hackers internal mailing list. I'm still trying to find out why the group needed to make a pronouncement on the Foundation's behalf before the Foundation was completely in place. Pennington also said that the actual decision was not what Sun is boasting. "The decision that was made is that we'll be taking the best code from Sun's codebase and the existing GNOME Office codebase," he said, "and trying to make the best possible GNOME Office out of it. This is just common sense."

Pennington is absolutely correct in his assessment, of course. But then why does the GNOME Foundation need to decree common sense? Meanwhile, Sun is still saying that GNOME Office has been taken over by OpenOffice, and nowhere within the Foundation's PR machine is any denial or clarification of Sun's message. And GNOME founder Miguel de Icaza didn't help matters by clearly taking sides with OpenOffice, calling Abi "fairly larval" in a recent interview.

In theory, volunteer-based projects such as AbiWord are supposed to be on equal footing with vendor-backed efforts such as OpenOffice. But in our first visible example of the GNOME Foundation's public presence, that appears not to be the case.

To their credit, the AbiWord developers are simply moving ahead in their efforts to make the world's best word processor, sounding at the very least more pupal than larval. Furthermore, those I spoke to are forthright enough to acknowledge that the GNOME Foundation politics have had an adverse -- though temporary -- effect.

"It has made it us a little more paranoid," Sevior said, "and has energized us to speed up Bonobo integration. I haven't noticed anybody leaving AbiWord for OpenOffice."

Another core AbiWord developer, Sam Tobin-Hochstadt, agreed that an effect was felt, but was not critical. "As far as GNOME goes, it might have been nicer if they had mentioned to us that they were planning to replace their word processor (us) with OpenOffice beforehand," he said. "However, GNOME has never been our primary focus. Instead, we don't have a primary platform."

Well, I didn't have a lot of respect or confidence in the GNOME Foundation when it was formed earlier this year. And its first real action -- the adoption of OpenOffice at the expense of AbiWord -- certainly hasn't done much to redeem its image around here.

Meanwhile, it seems that the real benefit of having OpenOffice will be the ability of developers to scavenge bits and pieces for use in other open source projects. Not only will word processors benefit, but so will components of the former GNOME Office such as the Gnumeric spreadsheet and Dia diagraming program. As for word processors, not only will AbiWord benefit, but so will the KWord component of the KOffice suite (that now ships with KDE's newly-released version 2.0).

While the KDE folk haven't been party to the GNOME Foundation power plays, they've certainly been watching. The feeling I've received from talking to some KOffice developers is well summed up in this unofficial commentary found at the KDE website. The piece notes that efforts are already underway to isolate the crown jewels of OpenOffice -- the Microsoft file format filters -- with the intent of bringing them into KOffice. I'm sure similar efforts are under way in the AbiWord camp. (I also want to call attention to this Slashdot piece by KDE core developer Kurt Granroth. In it, he offers the opinion that "pigs will probably fly" before there's a GNOME-like foundation wrapped around KDE.)

In retrospect, we should still be be thankful for the releasing of StarOffice, but not necessarily for the goals Sun had in mind. The biggest value of OpenOffice may well lie in specific parts rather than the whole bag of bits. In far less time than it will take to make this mass of code totally GNOME-aware, other open source projects may be able to extract its best bits for their own use.

At that point, politics and foundations won't matter. In open source, the winners aren't the ones with the biggest PR engines, they're the ones who speak primarily through the quality of their work. We'll see who speaks loudest in this manner over the coming months.

For now, I'll still be using StarOffice to read the Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel documents that people send to me. But I probably won't spend much time getting to know StarOffice (or OpenOffice) intimately. I'll be keeping a close eye on KOffice and AbiWord and trying out their new releases.

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