Sun: OpenOffice still a 'great international effort'

Development projects are underway to improve performance issues in the open source project, which remains a strong focus within the community, says exec.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Far from a project that is fading into oblivion, OpenOffice.org is still thriving under the support of a vibrant developer community and plans for further performance improvements, says its primary sponsor and owner Sun Microsystems.

Bruno Souza, director of worldwide open source initiative at Sun, said there are currently over 1,000 OpenOffice contributors supporting 100 different localizations. "It's a great international effort and one that shows no sign of decreasing," he maintained, in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia.

Souza said some 100 active developers have moved to the software's new repository and this migration is still an ongoing process.

Coding for OpenOffice

According to Sun's Bruno Souza, the OpenOffice.org Community Council governs the project but is not involved in day-to-day operations such as code contributions.
Contributions are evaluated instead by developers active in the relevant areas, where small, entry-level patches are reviewed, improved and finalized in collaboration with a developer maintaining the code. Before it is integrated into the software, the developer responsible for maintaining that part of the code will carry out necessary processes such as tests, specification and communication with the contributor.
Larger development projects in core areas will involve members overseeing those areas and encompass work on the repository, tests and documentation.
Depending on the volume, complexity and spread, a bug or code contribution can be integrated into the software within days, or two to three quarters, as part of a new release. Contributions can also be offered as extensions, which have a lower barrier to entry, as the development environment is simpler and can be released independently.

"During the OpenOffice 3.0 release cycle, we counted more than 100 contributors to the code, the build system, locations, test scripts and so on. We also have other developers submitting patches via our bug-tracking system," he said.

He added that OpenOffice operates on a quarterly release schedule, where new features are unveiled every other quarter as part of a release, followed by releases that contain only bug fixes.

OpenOffice 3.0.1 was launched on Jan. 27 this year, and version 3.1 is scheduled for release by the end of March.

John McCreesh, marketing project lead for OpenOffice.org, said the new release will encompass new features such as "anti-aliasing" for graphic enhancement, and improved support for "right-to-left" languages.

McCreesh, who has a full-time job managing IT programs for a major U.K. financial services group, added that there is still "a huge amount of software engineering talent" in some new economies that OpenOffice.org has "yet to engage with any significant degree".

"Tapping this reservoir could make an enormous difference in taking the product in new and different directions," he said in a e-mail interview.

Addressing performance issues
In a previous report, open source blogger Michael Meeks told ZDNet Asia that even trivial code changes in the software required a tedious approval process. Dubbing OpenOffice a "profoundly sick project", Meeks said Sun's ownership and control prevented other large companies from committing "wholeheartedly" to the project.

The news report evoked a series of feedback from readers, including those from ZDNet Asia's sister sites worldwide. While some noted the importance of the software as a needed alternative to Microsoft Office, others described the open source code base as inefficient, bloated and unwieldy.

One reader said OpenOffice "seems a huge glutton for space", and another lamented that not enough attention has gone into making the code more efficient, where software compilation is "way too difficult and time consuming".

Souza did not respond directly to questions about Meeks' comments, but said instead that future releases will focus on performance improvements, "especially for application startup and loading and saving of documents", as well as a new user interface (UI).

He explained that performance improvement efforts, set up as an official OpenOffice.org project, will be jointly led by engineers from Sun and its Chinese collaboration partner, RedFlag 2000 Software.

Codenamed Renaissance, the UI project seeks to address common user complaints about poorly structured menus, overstuffed toolbars and an antiquated user interface. "With an inefficient and visually unattractive graphical user interface, it will be hard for us to motivate more users of competitive offerings to switch to our product," the Renaissance site stated.

McCreesh added that support and compatibility issues with Office 2007 is not a major focus for OpenOffice contributors, but added that developers have fixed some reported bugs such as the handling of columns in text documents.

Disputing suggestions that the software was "slow and unwieldy", he said he has been running OpenOffice smoothly on a first-generation netbook.

Responding to statements that the software was unstable and difficult to compile, he added: "It's a big piece of software, and hacking it is not for beginners. Making what appears to be a small change in functionality can require changes in several places in the code.

"There's also a social side as well as a technical side--you may need to talk through your changes with 'owners' of different parts of the code. But, it can be done."

If not Sun, then who?
Reader feedback also noted that the open source community "seems to have their beef" with Sun and is unwilling to commit to OpenOffice because of its association with the vendor.

However, McCreesh said that while Sun is a major contributor of the software, anyone is free to take the codes and build their own version, within the guidelines of the Lesser General Public License (LGPL).

And should Sun relinquish its role as principle sponsor, he questioned if the shortfall in funding for the project would then be readily filled by other sponsors or contributors.

The project is funded "generously" by Sun and the IT vendor is also reaping rewards from this association, he said, noting that OpenOffice has been downloaded over 41 million times since version 3 was released. "That's an awful lot of people seeing Sun's name and logo every time they start up OpenOffice," he added.

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