Can IBM save OpenOffice.org from itself?

New member of open-source group must contend with development monoculture

OpenOffice.org's biggest foe may be Microsoft Office, but critics say the open-source organization has, from its inception, also been one of its application suite's own worst enemies -- a victim of a development culture that differs radically from the open-source norm. Observers now wonder if IBM's entry into OpenOffice.org can make the necessary changes.

Though spun out by Sun Microsystems in 2000, OpenOffice.org remains almost totally under the control of Sun employees working full-time on the project.

That includes virtually all of OpenOffice.org's lead programmers and software testers, most of whom are based in Sun's Hamburg, Germany office, as well as OpenOffice.org's overall boss, Louis Suarez-Potts, who is the community's equivalent to Linux's Linus Torvalds.

"I think Sun developers have worked hard to open up the process at OpenOffice.org, and to my mind it has shown positive results," said Bruce D'Arcus, a lead developer at OpenOffice.org who has blogged about his dissatisfaction. "But there's a fundamental contradiction between having a vibrant open community and having the process controlled by a single party."

That tight control, combined with a bureaucratic culture, has hurt OpenOffice.org's ability to roll out new features quickly and otherwise keep pace technically with Microsoft Office, say insiders. For instance, OpenOffice's current (non-Aqua) Mac version lacks rich graphics, there is no e-mail module, and the software cannot yet open or read files in the Office Open XML document format used by Office 2007.

As a result, OpenOffice and its commercial cousin, StarOffice, still own just a small slice of the office software market, though the former has been downloaded more than 96 million times. The most recent version, OpenOffice 2.3, was released Monday as the organization prepared for its worldwide developer conference in Barcelona this week.

Is Sun missing the cultural point?

There are "enough developers frustrated by both the technical and the organizational infrastructure at OpenOffice.org" that it is "a real problem that is weighing on the project," said D'Arcus, a university geography professor who participates in the project.

Or as another OpenOffice developer, Michael Meeks of Novell, blogged last week: "Question for Sun mgmt: at what fraction of the community will Sun reconsider its demand for ownership of the entirety of OpenOffice.org?"

That has long hurt OpenOffice.org's attempts to recruit and, moreover, keep contributors that are not paid by Sun or other leading backers such as Novell or Google to work on OpenOffice.org.

"OpenOffice.org has a very central business process of controlling what comes into the source base and by that very system misses the point of Open Source development," said Ken Foskey, an Australian open-source developer who volunteered for OpenOffice.org for three years. He left in 2005 after becoming "increasingly frustrated" with the organization's bureaucracy.

Scott Carr, a community member of OpenOffice.org, acknowledges he has lost two key members of his already-small documentation team.

"I understand where some of the criticism is coming from," he said.

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