Oracle-Sun deal renews calls for OpenOffice's independence

Question remains about best role model: Mozilla, Apache, or Linux Foundation?

Oracle Corp.'s purchase of Sun Microsystems Inc. last week is reviving calls for Sun's open-source OpenOffice.org suite to be spun out into an independent foundation.

Oracle is one of the top corporate contributors to Linux and many other open-source softwares.

However, that has long been overshadowed by the tens of billions of dollars Oracle reaps annually from proprietary enterprise software, as well as brazen attacks it has made on open-source stalwarts like Red Hat Inc.

Some insiders say Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's iron fist could actually help OpenOffice.org by helping streamline software development, or by better competing against Microsoft Office -- two longtime complaints leveled against Sun, which remains the group's primary financial sponsor and the source of most of its programmers nine years after making it open-source.

"I started writing about OpenOffice.org/StarOffice 10 years ago, and I would have expected that now, there would be far more name recognition and adoption," writes Solveig Haugland, a documentation author for OpenOffice.org. "I hope that Oracle sees the value in focusing more on both."

Or, OpenOffice.org might benefit Oracle as a valuable weapon in its never-ending war against Microsoft. The latest version, OpenOffice 3.0, has been downloaded more than 50 million times in its first six months. Microsoft Office's profits, meanwhile, have been slumping.

Andy Updegrove, a Boston lawyer and open-source advocate, said, "It's a no-brainer that any company that wants -- like Oracle -- to make inroads on Microsoft's desktop hegemony and economic strength should do whatever it can to support and turbocharge further development of OpenOffice.org."

If you love it, set it free?

Updegrove said he thinks that Oracle would be wise to consider putting into motion the long-stymied spin-off of OpenOffice.org.

"It would provide even greater credibility, and greater incentives for additional developers to join the project, from both the independent community as well as from major vendors like IBM and Google," Updegrove said.

Michael Meeks, a developer at Novell Inc. who is overseeing Novell's custom branch of the OpenOffice.org software, is more blunt. "We need to fix the deeply conservative, entrenched group-think around development process in the project ... Currently we have a total mess in this regard," he said.

Bruce D'Arcus, a college professor and co-lead for OpenOffice.org's bibliographic project, said he thinks the Oracle-Sun deal is a "good opportunity" for the project to be completely spun off.

Even John McCreesh, head of marketing for OpenOffice.org, leans towards the organization's emancipation. "Philosophically, I am bound to agree that this feels the 'right' model for an open-source community," McCreesh wrote in his blog last week.

McCreesh told Computerworld in an e-mail that most OpenOffice.org community members "are happy to play wait-and-see, with a foundation as a possibility if Oracle starts to impede the project in some way."

Absent from the debate is IBM, which did not return requests for comment. IBM has long called for OpenOffice.org's freedom.

"We think that Open Office has quite a bit of potential and would love to see it move to the independent foundation that was promised in the press release back when Sun originally announced OpenOffice," IBM Lotus director of strategy, Doug Heintzman, said in 2007.

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Eric Lai

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