Why is OpenOffice "profoundly sick"?

By retaining too much corporate control over OpenOffice, Sun is inhibiting its development.

OpenOffice.org developer and Novell employee Michael Meeks calls OpenOffice "profoundly sick" and chides Sun for retaining too much control over the project for its own good. He's right, and here's why.

First, though Meeks thinks it's critical that the raw numbers of OpenOffice volunteer developers be high, this isn't necessarily true. He writes:

In a healthy project we would expect to see a large number of volunteer developers involved, in addition - we would expect to see a large number of peer companies contributing to the common code pool; we do not see this in OpenOffice.org. Indeed, quite the opposite we appear to have the lowest number of active developers on OO.o since records began: 24, this contrasts negatively with Linux's recent low of 160+. Even spun in the most positive way, OO.o is at best stagnating from a development perspective.

Well, no. OpenOffice could actually be thriving from a development perspective in light of a decrease in the sheer number of contributors. Why? Because all significant open-source projects depend on a small-but-committed core of developers that do 85 percent of the development. The idea of a global, free-flowing (and freely coding) pool of open-source developers actively contributing significant code to projects is largely a myth. It always has been.

The important thing, therefore, is for that committed core to be...committed. But in the case of OpenOffice, Sun is both the gatekeeper to commitment and contribution, as Meeks intimates, and Sun's commitment to writing code seems to be dwindling:

It is clear that the number of active contributors Sun brings to the project is continuing to shrink, which would be fine if this was being made up for by a matched increase in external contributors....

Sun and Novell have long been the dominant contributors to OpenOffice, but Sun is apparently cutting back on its contributions without opening up the project to outside contributors. This is the big problem in OpenOffice. Or, rather, one of them. The other? OpenOffice is such a complex, monolithic piece of code that outside, would-be contributors struggle to know how to quickly become productive and contribute.

The answer isn't to start focusing on AbiWord or other open-source alternatives, as TechRepublic's Jack Wallen suggests. The answer is for Sun to turn OpenOffice into a foundation, similar to Eclipse , and get out of the way.

This won't resolve OpenOffice's code problems, but it just might resolve its code commitment problems. Until the latter is resolved, there's little hope, precisely because there's little incentive, for fixing the former.

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About the author

    Matt Asay is chief operating officer at Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu Linux operating system. Prior to Canonical, Matt was general manager of the Americas division and vice president of business development at Alfresco, an open-source applications company. Matt brings a decade of in-the-trenches open-source business and legal experience to The Open Road, with an emphasis on emerging open-source business strategies and opportunities. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not an employee of CNET. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mjasay.

     

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