A new version of the popular free software office application suite,
OpenOffice.org (OOo) 3.0, was released this week to lots of
press and enough download traffic to bring down its webserver. While the
release isn't a huge leap
forward in terms of features, it does provide some compelling
enhancements. Perhaps the most interesting is the increased focus on
extensions, a la Firefox, that don't require modifying the core OOo
code. This may help combat the problem—or perceived
problem—that Sun is stifling OOo development through its bureaucratic
procedures for adding new functionality.
The first thing one notices when starting up OOo 3.0 is the new splash screen,
but it appears for only a short time. One of the major complaints about
the suite has been how long it takes to start up—something that has
been addressed in 3.0. The application opens to a new welcome screen (seen
at left) that presents a more friendly appearance, rather than an empty
window, for new users. Once
past that point, the various tools look much as they did in OOo 2.4 and
The other changes are mostly under the covers; they will be noticed by
power users, but are not immediately obvious to basic users. These
- Writer (word processor) has a new slider for zooming
- Writer allows multi-page display and editing
- Calc (spreadsheet) allows up to 1024 columns per sheet
- Draw (drawing) can handle poster-size files
- Impress (presentation) supports multiple monitors for
- Writer has additional editing modes for multi-lingual support as well
as wiki document editing
- Calc has a new equation solver
- Chart (graphing) has improved graphical output
The OOo extensions
repository has many different kinds of add-ons for OOo, that provide
new or enhanced functionality for users. The most popular is the PDF
import extension which allows loading PDF files into the application
for editing. Given that OOo has long had the ability to natively export
PDFs, importing them is an excellent addition.
Clearly Sun and the OOo project see extensions as a fertile ground for
innovation by folks who are not necessarily OOo "contributors"—as
not signed the Sun
Contributor Agreement (SCA) [ PDF, currently unavailable due to the download
traffic problems ]. Sun's community manager for OOo, Louis Suarez-Potts,
it this way:
OOo 3.0 adds to that freedom by using extensions much the same way that
Firefox does: it gives all users the freedom to add new features,
functionality. At present, we have a couple of hundred, and they have
proved popular. We've also done minimal advertising. I anticipate that in
the coming months, as 3.0 gains yet more popularity (all servers are down
at the moment), there will be more and more interesting extensions out
I can see extensions that radically depart from what we consider "office"
tools---and why not? OOo is an integrated set of tools based on fairly
conservative conceptions of office software. But there is no compelling
reason to stick with the conservative past, and every reason to be
One of the new features that OOo developers are most excited about won't
affect Linux users at all. OOo 3.0 has a native Mac OS X look and feel, rather
than the earlier X11-based interface. A native Windows version has always
been a part of OpenOffice (and its precursor, StarOffice), but the new
default theme is said to be particularly attractive on that platform.
There are various new features aimed at those currently using—or
needing to interoperate with—Microsoft Office. There is support for
Access database files as well as improved Visual Basic for Applications
(VBA) macro support. Somewhat controversially, OOo 3.0 has added the
ability to read (but not write) Office Open XML (OOXML) files. OOXML is
the newly minted standard for office documents that Microsoft and Ecma pushed through the ISO
standardization process earlier this year.
Support for OOXML is one of the contentious areas surrounding OOo. There
are two (vocal) developer camps, one Sun-centric, the other Novell-centric;
unsurprisingly they tend to clash over OOXML as well as development pace
and direction issues. It has gotten to the point where a fork, called Go-OO, has come about, led by Novell's Michael
Meeks. Go-OO's version of OOo has been adopted by several distributions
leading some to see it as a "hostile" fork.
Sun's chief open source officer, Simon Phipps, clearly sees
Go-OO (and the
related OO-Build) as an attempt by Novell to control OOo:
The result of this is that go-oo.org is definitely a hostile and
competitive fork of OpenOffice.org, and OO-Build is no longer a helpful
downstream since it no longer upstreams much of anything (especially for
Mac), small changes excepted. Unlike Groklaw I'd still hesitate to call
OO-Build a fork, but Go-OO is unmistakably one, just look at the web site,
the Windows build and the rhetoric.
The motivation for Go-OO being hosted and promoted by Novell and its staff
seems unmistakable to me, as does the fact it is a Novell-sponsored
fork. They are promoting Microsoft's flakey XSLT-based OOXML support, they
are isolating Linux from OpenOffice.org (so that no-one in the main
OpenOffice.org community is able to get support contracts from Linux
users). And it is all cleverly wrapped in a community-friendly story about
hackers and their freedom and evil, controlling Sun, delivered without
interference from Novell corporate.
Meeks most recent look
at OOo development is the proximate cause of much of the current
sniping in various blogs.
Meeks analyzes commits to the OOo codebase to try to extract trends in the
development of the tool. His conclusion is stark—undoubtedly
inflammatory to those in the Sun camp—"Crude as they
are - the statistics show a picture of slow disengagement by Sun, combined
with a spectacular lack of growth in the developer community."
While there have been various responses to the analysis—including
this LWN comment
thread—there has, as yet, been no real counter-analysis that
comes to a different conclusion. Perhaps there are other ways to slice and
dice the data that look more favorable to growth in the OOo community, but
if not, the conclusion is worrisome. OOo is a very useful tool, that is
used by many, which offers a way out of Microsoft lock-in. Because of
Novell's close association with Microsoft, people worry that Go-oo is an
underhanded means for another kind of lock-in—this time to Novell.
In what seems almost a taunt—as well as a validation of the
accusation of a hostile fork—Meeks adds a postscript to his analysis:
Why is my bug not fixed ? why is the UI still so unpleasant ? why is
performance still poor ? why does it consume more memory than necessary ?
why is it getting slower to start ? why ? why ? - the answer lies with
developers: Will you help us make OpenOffice.org better ? if so, probably
the best place to get started is by playing with go-oo.org and getting in
There have long been complaints about the pace of OOo development, along
for creating a foundation to oversee it. It would seem that OOo is at
a bit of a crossroads. If Sun's commitment is reduced, without a
corresponding increase in contributions from others, OOo could
stagnate—or Go-oo could take over.
Ostensibly, the SCA is one of the sticking points for some contributors.
They do not trust Sun not to take their contributions in a proprietary
direction. But the conflict is really rooted in issues of control and
direction—two things likely to lead to forking. While two forks is
suboptimal, perhaps, it may lead to improvements in both the code
and the development process for OOo.
There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the issue—undoubtedly
the mostly silent user community has yet another perspective—but
there is enough bad blood between them that it is hard to see it resolving
in some relatively amicable way. The office application suite is an
extremely lucrative product, at least in the proprietary world. One gets
the sense that both Sun and Novell are seeing dollar signs which are clouding
their vision. A neutral foundation of some kind might be a good first step
Comments (33 posted)
Linux-Kongress 2008 attendees had the opportunity to hear two different
sessions dedicated to organizations trying to improve the state of Linux
support for embedded and mobile systems. They have similar goals, but are
taking different approaches and have different levels of resources
available to them.
The first of these is OpenSourceEmbedded, presented by uClinux developer
Jeff Dionne. He opened with a statement that, ten years ago, Linux-based
embedded systems were nearly unknown. Now those systems are everywhere,
with hundreds of millions of deployments. Embedded systems, he says, make
up the largest installed base of Linux systems.
All is not perfect, though, in the embedded sphere. Linux still has an
large footprint for embedded use. There is also no unified distribution
for embedded use; instead, the industry is full of homemade solutions made
by vendors. He would like to address this situation through the creation
of a next-generation platform. It would take the form of a kit that
developers could start with which comes equipped with design examples for a
number of applications: telephones, digital video recorders, etc.
There are two hardware platforms being targeted initially by this effort.
One is a Plasma MIPS processor - a very simple device which can be
implemented with an FPGA. A simulator for this processor runs about 600
lines of code. The other, more advanced platform is a LEON 2/3 SPARC
processor, a full system with a memory management unit and which supports
multiprocessor configurations. Examples of the first processor include a RealTek
MIPS system, while the LEON SPARC CPU is similar to current SuperH 3
processors. The Plasma and LEON SPARC processors are being designed now,
with the intent of producing them as open hardware designs.
On top of these processors will be a base operating system layer with a
"mini-POSIX" environment. There will be an interesting packaging system
which stores components as separate "blocks" in flash, outside of any
filesystem. The running system will be assembled from the blocks by the
boot loader. This organization is designed to avoid bricking; any bad or
corrupted components can simply be bypassed without affecting the
functioning of the rest of the system. This, evidently, is how PalmOS did
The next challenge is creating a community around this whole effort. To
that end, resources are to be put up at opensourceembedded.org - though
nothing is available as of this writing. The site will include project
hosting, along with the ability to download the development kits. Jeff
says that the uClinux experience has shown that the kit approach works;
with a ready-to-use code base like that, a community can come together.
There are also plans to create an organization behind this effort which,
among other things, can enter into non-disclosure agreements with hardware
manufacturers. This organization will also work to help vendors ship
OpenSourceEmbedded appears to be in an early state, so it's hard to make
any guesses about how successful it will be. For more information, see Jeff's slides
The closing session at the 2008 Linux-Kongress was a talk by Dirk Hohndel,
who began by noting that Linux-Kongress is, in fact, the oldest Linux
event. It was first held in 1994, and hosted many of the kernel developers
who were active at that time; Dirk estimates that about half of the
development community was to be found in a single room. It would take a
rather larger room to accomplish that now. Dirk complimented the event on
its avoidance of commercialism and its sustained focus on the technology.
The technology that Dirk came to talk about was mobile Linux. He started
by expressing his disappointment with desktop Linux. It has become a
of poorly-integrated applications which are somehow trying to replicate
Windows 95. The result does not work well on the desktop, and it
most certainly is not optimized for the mobile environment.
But, says Dirk, mobile Linux is not really embedded Linux either. Embedded
Linux evokes images of access points and other single-application boxes
which are not meant to be extended past a single function. They are not
concerned with the user's experience, and they are not concerned with
mobility. The subject here is devices with a screen, and which can have
new applications installed onto them. So some sort of desktop-like
interface is needed, but current desktop Linux does not fill the bill.
According to Dirk, the problem with desktop Linux is the fundamental
approach: developers are not the target audience for this software, but
they are making all the interface decisions. What's needed is input from
people who are specialized in interface design and human-computer
interaction. That leads to a "scary thought": interface specialists are
generally not coders, but they will be making decisions that coders are
expected to implement. That is not a normal mode of operation in the free
software community, but it is needed here.
Other problems include the proliferation of "80% done" projects. Much of
the work has been done, but nobody wants to do the work to finish the job.
There's also far too many choices; in general, says Dirk, people do not
like it if they have to choose between more than two alternatives. When
dealing with the Linux desktop, it's hard to find situations where there
are fewer than six choices. And, overall, the Linux desktop lacks
consistency. That, says Dirk, is why he uses an Apple laptop. Apple
enforces a consistent design across the application space and, he says, the
result is very nice.
Devices should be simple and natural to use; such devices are increasingly
hard to find anywhere. As an example, he held up a paper notebook. The
device boots very quickly, has a nice "touch-based" pencil-oriented
interface. No manuals or explanations are needed. Linux-based devices
should be just as easy to use. But, at the same time, they need to offer
an experience which is close to what people expect from an ordinary,
desktop computer. It should have access to the Internet, and users should
be able to install software.
Dirk then pulled out an Eee PC system and gave the five-second boot demonstration.
This work, he says, is an example of what is being done by Intel in support
of the Moblin project. Intel is
trying to solve some of the hardest problems in the mobile space,
contributing the results for everybody to use.
To that end, Moblin is working toward the creation of a base distribution
for mobile systems. The user interface will be based on the GNOME mobile
work, but with a lot of enhancements. The end goal is the creation of a
Linux distribution for mobile devices which is far better
state of the art today. It is not, he says, an attempt to compete with
distributors; instead, Moblin is providing a base which the distributors
can build on. Intel's effort will naturally focus on Intel processors, but
contributions for any architecture are welcome at Moblin.
In conclusion, Dirk noted that Linux's success on the server side was
relatively easy. The mobile problem is much harder. Intel is hoping that
others will join in to help Moblin reach its rather ambitious goals.
Comments (6 posted)
Measuring the health of communities is an interesting, difficult task. The
Fedora project has recently started using a new tool, called EKG, to try to get an overview of
the demographics of the free software projects that are sponsored by
the distribution. EKG is still young, but already provides some
interesting information. Because it is GPL-licensed, as is the Fedora
norm, it can be picked up by other distributions or interested parties to
target their own projects.
At its core, EKG is a few Ruby scripts that process mailing list data so
that graphs can be produced. Currently, it produces both pie charts and
line graphs that indicate the number of Red Hat posters versus those from
elsewhere. A portion of the most
recent set of graphs can be seen at right.
Red Hat's Michael DeHaan has taken on development of EKG to use as a tool
to measure how
well various projects are building a community separate from Red
Hat. There are lots of free software projects that have been released by
Red Hat—or Fedora, which often amounts to the same thing—but
may or may not be seen as useful tools outside of Fedora. By looking at
the mailing list traffic, particularly over time, some idea of which
projects are building a community, and which aren't, can be derived. As
the project page puts it:
The premise is simple... what are the demographics behind open source
projects that we run in Fedora?
- Who posts
- Who contributes
- What projects are most active?
- What projects need a little help?
Mailing lists are just one measure of the health of a project, of course,
so DeHaan is looking at other metrics. Commits to the project
repository—along with the identities of the commiter—would seem
an obvious choice. Better graphs with more useful information on each axis
as well as time series of the pie charts are also on the "to do" list.
He is also looking at derived statistics that will allow direct comparison
of different projects by using equations that in some way model success.
It is difficult to draw any conclusions from the limited graphs that are
currently available. One thing that does stand out, though, is the
popularity of gmail.com email addresses, which seem to account
for around one-quarter of posts. One can also certainly see projects that
are completely dominated by "inside" (i.e. Red Hat) folks. The JBoss lists
are a good example.
Projects are trying various ways to measure how well they are doing their
job; EKG is another way to do that. For the kernel, the statistics on each
release are gathered by LWN, as well as over longer
periods by the Linux Foundation. Ubuntu has its Upstream Report which looks at
how well bugs are getting to upstream bug trackers. Undoubtedly other
projects have their own ways of trying to measure their impact.
As yet, there is no mailing list for EKG development. We look forward to
the day when EKG is applied to its own development list. It would seem
that some kind of "metahealth" measurement of the community
might be able to be derived from that data.
Comments (none posted)
The opening keynote speaker for the 2008 Linux-Kongress was James
Bottomley, who presented his views on the Linux community's values. What these
values are, says James, is not entirely obvious. Related groups - the free
software community, for example - have well-articulated value systems which
define them. The Linux community's values are not so clearly expressed,
but, he says, they are central to what we do.
James started with a bit of history, noting the the initial value placed on
software was entirely commercial. Once the industry realized that software
could be worth far more to its users than it costs to create, the
proprietary mode became dominant - and that has affected the evolution of
programming in general. The value placed on the code by its developers
became irrelevant, leading to "paycheck coding." There is no value placed
on creativity, and such a model leads to bad code.
Eventually Richard Stallman came along and challenged the commercial view
of software. But, during this time, about the only alternative to
commercial software was the BSD Unix distribution, and that got caught up
in the lawsuit by ATT. So closed software took over; Windows won on
commodity platforms, but proprietary software also became dominant in the
In 1991, Linux hit the scene; since then, it has become the most popular
and vibrant free software operating system available. In a sense, this is
interesting, in that Linux is licensed under the GPL, a license that many
companies hate. Apple explicitly chose BSD as the base for MAC OS to
avoid GPL-licensed code. But, despite this antipathy, lots of companies
use Linux, and even contribute to its development. It is interesting,
James says, to look at why that is.
The reason is the Linux community's values. In particular, the community
prizes technical merit above all other considerations - including small
things like what any company or user would like to have. Also prized is
passion; code supported by a developer who clearly cares about it will
generally fare better in the review process. If the code quality and the
passion are there, the community does not care about much of anything
else. Factors like the source of the code or who might benefit from its
incorporation don't really matter.
In particular, contributors to the kernel are not required to sign on to
any particular belief system or any specific view of freedom. A
contributor may have an FSF-like belief in free software, or, instead, be a
corporate developer who does not care about software freedom at all. Even
the BSD community requires acquiescence with a specific view of freedom. A
Linux contributor, instead, need only be willing to contribute the code
under the share-alike rules of the GPL.
As a result, anybody can play with Linux, regardless of philosophy or
corporate status. We have a community which is defined by contributions,
not by a specific set of values regarding software freedom. That has
allowed the formation of a very diverse community with a specific shared
interest: creating the best kernel we can.
There are some significant benefits from this approach. It forces
companies to recognize their engineers' values; that, in turn, makes for
more motivated developers. Developers who are interested in improving
Linux can get resources and support from corporations. Users get
high-quality code from developers who care about what they are doing.
Companies get the ability to focus on their little piece of the problem
while taking advantage of the community-maintained kernel for the rest;
they can also offload their older code to the community for long-term
James compared the Linux way of doing things with the US constitution.
That document only mentions freedom three times, yet it has become a
blueprint which has supported freedom for over 200 years. It is a
relatively short document. The proposed EU constitution, instead, is about
20 times the length, before taking into account other documents which are
referenced. That document would appear to be somewhat bloated; the goals
would be better served by a more concise formulation.
Similarly, the Linux community spends little time talking about freedom.
Instead, the focus is on a set of brief principles involving code quality
and passion. Freedom is not legislated; it arises as an emergent
value inherent in the Linux way of doing things. Linux has managed to
bring about software freedom without talking about it, and without imposing
a view of software freedom on its contributors. In the process,
Linux has succeeded in creating something which is as free - or more free -
than the GNU system envisioned by the Free Software Foundation.
During the question period, James wished for a free software advocate who
would argue the point with him, but no such person emerged. He will, it
seems, have to repeat the talk in a different venue before he can have that
Comments (49 posted)
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