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Why a fork?

Forks usually happen because circumstances change, because personal, behavioural or technical philosophies collide, or because developers want to experiment or take the software in a different direction.

The ability to fork and rescue an ailing project is often touted as one of the big advantages of free and open source software. Whereas a proprietary software package may die if its parent company is bought or sold or goes out of business, a free software package will live on as long as somebody, somewhere, is willing to support its development. This is precisely the slot into which OpenOffice.org has fallen because of the uncertain nature of Oracle's commitment to OpenOffice development.

A similar fate has befallen a number of projects that were administered by Sun Microsystems, and are now owned by Oracle. Examples include MariaDB and Drizzle, which are well known forks of MySQL, Forgerock's OpenAM, IcedTea, and Illumos OpenIndiana, which has become the great hope for the OpenSolaris community.

Successful forks generally don't happen for trivial reasons. Some forks, such as Firefox, have had the blessing of the parent organisation, and have gone on to replace the parent product. In user terms LibreOffice may be the biggest fork ever of a free software project - its success or failure will be a test of the resolve of contributors, sponsors and developers.

An unusual aspect of the LibreOffice fork is that by most measurements OpenOffice.org has been a success. There is no easy way to estimate the number of users, as the software is available from any number of sources. In the past the project has attempted a market share analysis, and has kept a record of major deployments. Downloads have run into the hundreds of millions.

Despite this, the decision to fork the project has been taken for positive reasons. A freeing of the code from the chains of a company with a proprietary interest in the marketing and development of the product is an opportunity for growth and development. As the Linux kernel project has demonstrated, a free software project, where the code belongs to no-one, attracts more developers. Decisions are made collaboratively, and terms for contribution are well-defined and clear. The greater the number of individual and corporate developers the greater the pool of ideas there are to work from and the faster the project grows.

Significantly, Chris DiBona, Open Source Programs Manager at Google, notes that: "Having a level playing field for all contributors is fundamental in creating a broad and active community around an open source software project." LibreOffice will differ significantly from OpenOffice in that the developers are freed from an overarching and ultimately stifling bureaucracy, and are able to express themselves freely.

No success like failure

Various factors have contributed to the success of OO.o. Cost and 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. OpenOffice.org has been an undoubted thorn in the side of Microsoft, and has been a valuable adjunct to Sun's software portfolio. But despite this, the success of OpenOffice.org has never matched its initial promise or the expectations of its contributors.

The release of the code to the community was expected to propel OpenOffice.org into a faster cycle of development and renewal, but this hasn't happened. Instead, there have been continuous rumours of dissent from developers about the lack of transparency in the development process, and murmurings from users about the slow response to bug reports. OpenOffice.org is a good middle of the road office suite which happens to be free and open source, but its users expected more. Historically, critics have laid the source of OpenOffice.org's shortcomings at Sun's door, blaming slow and cumbersome feedback procedures.

Moreover, as Meeks reported back in 2008 "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 OpenOffice.org. Indeed, quite the opposite we appear to have the lowest number of active developers on OO.o since records began."

Next: Riding the audit trail

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