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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 earlier versions.
The other changes are mostly under the covers; they will be noticed by power users, but are not immediately obvious to basic users. These include:
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 they have 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, puts it this way:
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 creative.
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 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:
There have long been complaints about the pace of OOo development, along with calls 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 development 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 towards reconciliation.
Copyright © 2008, Eklektix, Inc.
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