The OpenOffice.org productivity suite has been a key piece in the open-source software puzzle for a number of years. It offers the ability to read and write files in Microsoft Office formats, as well as in its native Open Document Formats [ODF], and can additionally read a number of “legacy” formats, including those from Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect, and Quattro. Although it is not point-for-point identical in features to Microsoft Office, it offers almost all of the same capabilities in a package that runs on Windows, Mac OS X, Solaris, and Linux. The OpenOffice code base is also used in IBM’s Lotus Symphony product (available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux).
OpenOffice originated as StarOffice, a product of Star Division, a German software developer; the firm and product were acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. Sun launched the OpenOffice project as open source, although it still sold a commercial version in parallel. While never amounting to a blockbuster, OpenOffice has gained a solid foothold, especially with Linux users (like me) and those who value its cross-platform availability.
As readers probably remember, Sun Microsystems was recently acquired by Oracle. Although there had been some grousing about Sun’s management of the OpenOffice project, and about its requirement that developers assign their copyrights to the company, concerns grew with the acquisition, since Oracle’s commitment to open source is not really clear. Now, as reported in an article at Ars Technica, a group of OpenOffice contributors has formed a non-profit organization, the Document Foundation, to go forward with a community-driven fork, or development branch, of the project.
The Document Foundation serves the long-standing need for a more inclusive culture around the project. The group is creating a fork of OOo called LibreOffice that will be distributed independently of OOo. The foundation’s steering committee is diverse and includes some key members of the OOo project. Corporate supporters include Novell, Red Hat, Canonical, and Google.
The new version, which is available as a beta version, is being provisionally called LibreOffice, since the OpenOffice name is owned by Oracle, although the Document Foundation expresses the hope that Oracle might join the project, or at least donate the name.
The Document Foundation intends to license the software under either the Mozilla Public License, or the Lesser General Public License. It will not require contributors to assign their copyrights. Development plans for the new version are stil in the formative stage, although there is some general agreement that a code clean-up is in order.
Potentially, this could be a very positive step for the future of the project. The example of Mozilla is instructive. Since it became an independent organization, outside the tar-pit of AOL/Netscape, the Firefox browser has emerged as a clear success story.