LibreOffice: time to reconsider Open Source and power?

[Cross-posted from DSC@KCL Blog]

Having been a longtime user I was a little surprised recently when installing the Ubuntu flavour of Gnu/Linux to find that something called LibreOffice was the default office suite. It looked remarkably similar to (which I noticed because I knew exactly where the place to turn off autocompletion of words was located) but it wasn’t I realised that having stopped following the Free Software and Open Source worlds that closely a little while ago I had missed the forking of to create LibreOffice. The shift most clearly results from ongoing property and licensing issues that are key to all such software projects. But after looking into it even a little I think the deeper story might be about the role of major corporations that take on open source projects and thus is about the meaning of the rise of Open Source as opposed to Free Software. I little bit of impressionistic tech history will help make the point.

LibreOffice: the Document Foundation Logo

All the programmes I’m discussing are office suites including the usual word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, database and so on. resulted from StarOffice which was Sun Corporations attempt to compete in this market. When Sun failed to compete and during the rush of enthusiasm for Open Source, Sun decided to release StarOffice’s code as to create a competitor to Microsoft’s dominant Office suite of programmes. The Open Source suite gradually developed to a formidable competitor to MS-Office in features and performance, with the added advantage of a $0 cost. In 2010 Oracle, the major database and software corporation, bought Sun and then contributed to the Apache Software Foundation that oversees mainly Apache server software but other Open Source projects. So far open and corporate seem in step. Logo

But then in August 2011 a memo leaked from Oracle concerned a project called OpenSolaris. Solaris had been a Unix-like operating system developed at Sun which had, you guessed it, been released as Open Source. The memo concerned Oracle dropping support for OpenSolaris and migrating its users to a non open version. This lead to developers forking and taking OpenSolaris forward under the name OpenIndiana. In alarm at these changes, some developers forked the code and created LibreOffice to ensure ongoing development and upgrading.

The point here is not that Oracle stopped access to these open programmes, the source code was already available. But it makes clear that any Open Source project that is heavily reliant on a corporation for staffing can be orphaned by the corporation moving on. Such an orphaning means the need to suddenly reconstruct all the necessary support and community that underpins a successful free software project. It may also mean the potential loss of key programmers, who are turned to the corporation’s programme, or the loss for those programmers of their jobs, if their corporation refuses to allow them to work on both.

The point about Open Source in general, as a movement, is that this kind of corporate involvement was exactly what Open Source was set up to create. The reason Open Source was created was to try to connect business to the power of free software programming, without the rhetoric of freedom so insistently voiced by Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation. Free software needs not only appropriate licences, it needs communities of programmers and once these are dominated by corporations the move to Open Source methods has introduced a shift in the power to sustain such software projects. Maybe the emergence of LibreOffice marks a good time to reflect on power relations in co-operative software production beyond those in the licenses.