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Riding the audit trail

Although OO.o has always garnered complementary reviews, partly because of the crying need for an alternative to Microsoft Office, there have also been complaints about the slow or non-existent response to bug reports and fixes.

Sun's take on this was that, unlike the better known free software projects, an office suite can claim to have much greater reliance on, and vulnerability to, quality assurance (QA) issues, affecting usability, consistency and reliability. This, for Sun developers, was the key issue, as a French contributor, Charles-H. Schulz explained.

"Since we're developing an end-user software suite we cannot tolerate leaving our software at a low level of quality. Of course, there are always bugs and we have ramped up our QA teams and resources significantly over time. QA gets to register the builds, test them at various levels according to the development, localisation and QA processes. It also approves and decides whether the builds should be released or not. QA and the QA project play a central role in our development and release process."

The community's view is that Sun imposed a proprietary development logic onto a free software project, nullifying the advantages of open source development, and creating a philosophical impasse. Those developers who have worked on heavily audited government projects will recognise the paradox - audit trails which are there to provide quality assurance often get in the way of developing quality code, which is why the best code in commercial environments often comes out of skunkworks projects - as was the case with James Gosling and Java.

Uncompromisingly free software

Unfortunately some of the criticisms of OpenOffice.org and the opacity of the project have been lost or wrongly dismissed because the most vocal and articulate critics have sometimes been employees of Novell, and their criticisms have tended to be conflated with other issues.

The view of the great majority of the OpenOffice.org / LibreOffice developer community is that OpenOffice.org should be driven by its community of users and developers. Successful community led projects tend to be independent, democratic, noisy, discursive and chaotic, but are creative and successful because they promote developer initiative and attract a greater number of developers.

LibreOffice will be uncompromisingly free software, and as one developer observes, "it is hard to think of anyone of any note in the community that isn't involved," including developers from Red Hat and Debian. The hope is that OpenOffice / Libreoffice "will go where people want it to go, because it hasn't been going where people want it to. Initially the focus will be on cleaning up the code, adding polish and increasing usability." In the longer term, the project will be much more ambitious.

If LibreOffice takes off, which it has every chance of doing, the test for the developers will be to prove that a distributed free software development model not only gives the developers greater freedom and initiative, but also produces results.

For other feature articles by Richard Hillesley, please see the archive.

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