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Calling a cat a dog

The home page of tackles some of the issues as Meeks sees them. "Contributing code to go-oo is simple, and fast," it says, "following the traditional hackers' process of peer code review: just mail patches to the mailing list, or when we get used to your code - commit your patch immediately to HEAD ooo-build: no CWS, no hours of tagging, paperwork, no specification, no hassle. Of course - if your patch sucks - expect to hear how it can be improved." Each point of this statement is a stab at Sun's development process.

The page also asserts that "go-oo is a developer run meritocracy," and takes on Sun directly with the assertion that "copyright assignment to a single corporate entity opens the door for substantial abuse of the best-interests of the codebase and developer community. As such, we prefer either eclectic ownership (cf. Mozilla, GNOME, KDE, Linux), or an independent, meritocratic foundation (cf. Eclipse, Apache) to own the rights."

The creation of the branch of under the auspices of Novell was a big decision, but may have created more problems than it solves. Firstly, the publicity surrounding the attack on the way that Sun runs the project may cause some damage to perceptions of OpenOffice itself, and is probably best kept in-house, (which is probably unfair on Meeks who, as he would see it, has no particular axe to grind other than his own belief in the free software process and his opposition to the adverse effects of an over-enthusiastic bureaucracy).

Secondly, Novell is not best placed to give lessons to the free software community on the political maintenance of software projects, and it might have been better, given the desire to separate the code from association with "a single corporate entity", to launch the go-oo branch as an independent developer-centric entity.

Thirdly, there is a perception, valid or otherwise, that go-oo has become the vehicle for Microsoft-inspired extensions to the code, not helped by Miguel de Icaza's advocacy of MS-OOXML. In the words of Schulz: "To me it looks like Novell has been vassalized and under the influence of Microsoft to the point where they had to defend the indefensible. Now, I was not born yesterday, and I know that in theory as well as in practice, corporations’ primary role is to generate revenue. Hence you will find several corporations out there who will help FOSS with the right hand and promote the exact opposite with the left. Novell strikes me as different: it blurs the lines, puts a little bit of this in a little bit of that, calls a cat a dog and delivers software that is open source with conditions." Fair or not, this is a widely held view within the user and developer communities.

Trouble and strife

To the outside world appears to be in rude health, gaining friends and influencing people. In the inner sanctum there is the appearance of trouble and strife, but everything isn't necessarily as bad as it may appear. Sun has asserted its continuing commitment to OO.o, and go-oo is a branch, not a fork. Meeks may have chosen the wrong vehicle for his breakaway, but is making his point that OO.o could benefit from a loosening of the reins, freeing the licence, relaxing the branding, and establishing OO.o as an independent free software foundation in the manner of Apache or Eclipse, from which Sun is uniquely placed to reap the benefits.

The question is whether Sun, with its growing experience of free software development through MySQL and Java, feels it can afford to put more trust in the initiative of its developers and collaborators which, in the view of Meeks, will lead to better and faster development, and greater responsiveness to user issues, or whether indeed Sun feels it has the balance just about right.

About the Author

Richard Hillesley is a freelance writer who specialises in writing about free software and digital rights. He is a former editor, columnist and main feature writer for LinuxUser magazine (later LinuxUser & Developer). In a previous life he worked for 17 years as a systems software consultant and developer.

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