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What's in a licence

The licensing differences bring up several other issues, including IBM's motivation for backing Apache over TDF. Ownership of the OpenOffice.org code is now assigned to the ASF. The ASF demands that all the code it supports is released under an Apache licence.

A liberal licensing regime, such as Apache offers, allows IBM, or anyone else, to embed community developed code in a proprietary setting without giving any changes back to the community. The theory espoused by IBM and others is that a liberal licensing regime encourages greater participation from corporate interests because the code can be absorbed into products, and there is a benefit in maintaining the continuity of the code by feeding changes back.

A copyleft licence, such as those preferred by the LibreOffice developers, compels feedback, which may put off some contributors, but encourages others, as is demonstrated by the example of the Linux kernel. Copylefted code is less susceptible to forks, and forks may discourage contributions from other users. As it is, many companies, large and small, contribute to the Linux kernel project in the knowledge that competitors are obliged to give back and that there is a mutual advantage for everybody in the resulting consistency of the code.

The suspicion is that OpenOffice is useful to IBM as a source of components for IBM's future web office, system management and data warehousing tools, and as a vehicle for the principle of ODF as a universal data format – which approximates to an "open core" model for development, where open source elements are re-used in a proprietary setting. A copyleft licence is less flexible and wouldn't allow IBM so much room for manoeuvre.

Apache OpenOffice can also be seen as a useful adjunct to IBM's policy of using ODF to replace the control point that Microsoft has been able to impose on the market through its proprietary data formats. A reference implementation of the ODF Toolkit written to the Apache Licence is a desirable objective for IBM, and OpenOffice may be seen as the route by which the toolkit becomes an Apache project. This would be useful, not just for Lotus Symphony or IBM and its greater strategic objectives, but for any office suite that wants to compete with Microsoft Office and work to an open standard.

As it stands, at the time of the announcement of the donation of the Lotus Symphony code to the ASF, Rob Weir felt compelled to write: "we at IBM have not been exemplary community members when it came to OpenOffice.org. This wasn't necessarily by design, but for various reasons, that was the effect. Yes, we participated in various community councils, and sponsored conferences and worked together on standards. But when it came down to the code, we maintained Symphony essentially as a fork, and although we occasionally contributed code back, we did not do this well, or often."

The road ahead for Apache

As the ASF demands that all the code it supports is released under an Apache licence it cannot absorb third party code that has been released under other licences. LibreOffice code is dual licensed under the LGPL and the Mozilla Public Licence. As a consequence, enhancements to the LibreOffice code cannot be accepted into Apache supported code, although Apache-licensed changes can be absorbed the other way, so the development paths for the two projects will inevitably diverge, unless the Libreoffice developers take the regressive step of retaining backwards compatibility with the Apache project.

Meeks noted some of the differences in early September. "As a reasonably useless statistic," he wrote, "but perhaps one that points helpfully to the likelihood of merging conflicts we have ~2 million lines of diff -u output over 7.7 million new lines of code." He also noted that "there is an assumption that code committed to Apache OpenOffice will inevitably and automatically appear in LibreOffice. This looks increasingly unlikely. Instead I suspect we will end up cherry-picking and porting only those things that justify the effort, as/when/if there is any such thing."

In the short term there are core elements of the OpenOffice codebase licensed under copyleft licences which "would require either discarding features like spell-checking, document signing, file compatibility, etc., etc., etc., or instead re-writing purely for licensing reasons."

The IBM and Apache developers have some work to do.

LibreOffice into the future

In the meantime, each release of LibreOffice has brought new and significant features. As Michael Meeks, once of Novell, and now employed by SUSE directly, says: a lot of work is getting done. The community has been able to "transcend all the bickering, clean the code base substantially, and remove lots of legacy cruft."

"We want a small slick scalable powerful office suite, and one that doesn't regress as we take it forward", he says. "So people can change code with confidence because they know that their mistakes will be caught." In the past there were complaints that code changes were lost in the fog of process. Now, LibreOffice has become "a large fun place", he says, "a Linux kernel-like community, where people have fun and are really effective and can make a real difference."

LibreOffice can be fairly described as community driven. Active participants include users, marketeers, translators, designers and Q&A testers, as well as developers. There is a wiki where contributors can share their ideas, and participate at any level. "The human angle and the banter comes in on IRC," says Meeks. "It's fun and it's really beginning to go places", and new and wacky ideas for extending the functionality, design and usability of LibreOffice can be submitted to the wiki.

"We're using unit tests, so we avoid regressions and catch them quickly. We are cross-compiling to Windows and Android and iOS. We have a web office prototype, which we'll announce at the developer conference next month. There is a huge amount of innovation and bug fixing. LibreOffice is a fun place to be which it never was before."

Inevitably there has been talk about new interfaces for tablets and other devices. "If you present the current interface for a tablet it isn't going to look pretty but it might be useful. It provides a good springboard to build an interesting interface around it." The developer conference will be the starting place for new ideas and concepts, and UIs for new and as yet unthought of devices, and there is ongoing work on improving the usability of the current UI.

In the interim, the focus is on building the community. At the outset, The Document Foundation was announced as a fait accomplis, and the ownership of the Document Foundation and LibreOffice names were said to be assigned to a German non-profit, OpenOffice.org Deutschland e.V. However, the transfer and establishment of the foundation has proven to be a slow, if steady, process. Italo Vignoli expresses frustration at a procedural impasse whereby "you submit a document and are told you will get an answer in three months time." A deadline has been set for the establishment of the Foundation by the end of December, and if it isn't in place by then, the community will set up an "association" to ensure that in the interim there is a legal entity which can represent the interests of the community and its members, who are in the process of nominating candidates for election to the Board of the Foundation.

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

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