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Laughing amateurs

By most measurements has been an unrivalled success. There is no easy way to estimate the number of users, as the software is freely available from download sites, magazine cover discs, Linux distributions, OEMs, mirrors and peer-to-peer sources. Nonetheless, the project does attempt a market share analysis, and a record of major deployments, and downloads run into the hundreds of millions.

Various factors have contributed towards the success of OO.o. Cost, over reliance on single vendor solutions, the new found respectability of Linux and open source, and the furore surrounding MS-OOXML have all played their part in raising the profile of the software.

The greatest obstacle to the uptake of OpenOffice is probably inertia. Nonetheless, OO.o and its derivatives, which include StarOffice, NeoOffice, Lotus Symphony and Red Flag's RedOffice, have made significant inroads into Microsoft's market share, especially in the emergent markets of the Far East, aided and abetted by localisation features and support for a wider range of Microsoft legacy data formats than any of its rivals, including Microsoft Office. Clearly, OO.o is competitive and sufficient to the requirements of most users, and its impact is likely to increase as downturns affect the global economy.

Since the beginning OO.o has garnered complimentary reviews, albeit tempered by an occasional harsh assessment such as a 2005 article by Andrew Brown, which claimed that OpenOffice was buggy, and that the response to bug reports was slow or non-existent. Brown has contributed to the OO.o project, and like some other critics, lays the source of's perceived troubles at Sun's door, blaming slow and cumbersome feedback procedures.

"The distinction between Sun as the inner oligarchy of producers, and everyone else as more or less favoured consumers simply won't hold," he has written more recently. "The balance, difficult and unpleasant though it clearly is for Sun to understand, is not between professional engineers and happy, laughing amateurs with their intoxicating natural rhythms, but between the Sun-salaried workforce and their competitors from the real world, at IBM and the various Linux companies. The end-users are wholly irrelevant."

Half-hearted open source

Brown is not alone in his criticism. As with most free software projects OO.o has been subject to the hopes and scrutiny of a broad community of users and developers, and has not been able to meet all expectations at once. Most of the early faults of OpenOffice were attributed to its proprietary heritage. Like Mozilla, the developers inherited a huge code base and an idiosyncratic user interface. But like Mozilla, OO.o has emerged slowly from its chrysalis, and has matured with age.

The political issues have been obvious. OO.o was reliant on proprietary Java, or the Java trap, as Richard Stallman labelled it, and there have been licensing problems. The project was initially released under Sun's own open source licence, the Sun Industry Standards Source Licence (SISSL), but later versions have been released under the LGPL (currently LGPL v3), with a catch. The catch is that developers have to sign over their copyright to Sun, which inhibits some contributors.

But the most scathing criticism has come from Michael Meeks, a Novell employee and long time OO.o developer, who asserts that the project is failing to attract individual or corporate developers, due to "a half-hearted open-source strategy that is not truly 'Open'" and lacks transparency. In Meeks's view "the statistics show a picture of slow disengagement by Sun," which Sun denies, "combined with a spectacular lack of growth in the developer community."

"In a healthy project we would expect to see a large number of volunteer developers involved, in addition - we would expect to see a large number of peer companies contributing to the common code pool; we do not see this in Indeed, quite the opposite we appear to have the lowest number of active developers on OO.o since records began."

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