OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org has been in the news for a couple reasons this week. On one hand, IBM announced that is was releasing Lotus Symphony, an office suite that is based on OpenOffice.org code and runs in an Eclipse instance. On the other hand, some of the community is up in arms about the control Sun continues to have over the project. Note that I am not involved in the OOo community on a daily basis, so I don’t know if the CW article is just a journalistic powder keg or a legitimate impending feud. Looking at the issues at hand, I do have a little commentary however. When you look at successful Open Source projects of a certain size, they typically have some kind of benevolent dictator at the top. Sometimes it’s a person (Linux for example), sometimes it’s a Foundation (Firefox, Apache, Eclipse) and sometimes it’s a company (Alfresco,OpenOffice). Whatever the structure, that direction and leadership from the top is critical to the success of a project. It’s clear that up until now, Sun has been the “top” of the OpenOffice.org project. They employee about 85% of the contributors and all official commits must go through Hamburg. Don’t forget that OpenOffice.org is the result of Sun acquiring Star Office and open sourcing it. Keeping that in mind, it’s clear that some features have not made it into the product because Sun did not want it to happen. That being said, I think that overall Sun has done a very good job with the project.

Now, with IBM joining the project on an official level and also committing 35 head count from China, things may be set to change. Have we reached a point where Sun should let go and form an “OpenOffice.org Foundation”? If so, how much control of that organization should they retain? Or, is it OK for a company that started an Open Source project to maintain control if they are providing good leadership? OpenOffice.org is hugely important to the Open Source community, so this is an important discussion. I think that an OpenOffice.org Foundation makes the most sense in this case, but I could see a general argument for maintaining company control (at least in some cases). What do you think?

One final comment. I forget sometimes how difficult a position Sun has put themselves in after years of being schizo about Open Source. For the last couple of years they have done some truly awesome things, yet they continue to take a beating in the community. I wonder how long it is until some will think they have paid their dues. With some of the OpenSolaris vs. Linux posturing that is sure to come (more comments on that soon) my guess is that Sun may not get the credit they deserve for some time.

–jeremy

IBM joins the OpenOffice.org

To the collective cheer of “It’s about time”, IBM is now officially supporting the OpenOffice.org project. From the press release:

The OpenOffice.org community today announced that IBM will be joining the community to collaborate on the development of OpenOffice.org software. IBM will be making initial code contributions that it has been developing as part of its Lotus Notes product, including accessibility enhancements, and will be making ongoing contributions to the feature richness and code quality of OpenOffice.org. Besides working with the community on the free productivity suite’s software, IBM will also leverage OpenOffice.org technology in its products.

“In the seven years since Sun founded the project, OpenOffice.org has fueled and filled the need for document data and productivity tools that are open and free. Open source software and ODF are having a profound impact around the world, with numerous communities and organizations coming together to support these initiatives and governments, and corporations and schools standardizing on the software. We look forward to working with IBM and the other members of OpenOffice.org to ensure that this momentum continues. We invite others to join us in the community and participate in building the future as OpenOffice.org and ODF continue to gain popularity across the planet,” said Rich Green, Executive Vice President, Software at Sun Microsystems, Inc.

The accessibility gains here are huge for OpenOffice.org, as it means a foot in the door to some Government procurements that were not previously possible or would have previously run into issues. Stephe also points out the significance of Redflag Chinese 2000 Software’s participation in the press release, along with the potential ODF and UOF harmonization that may occur.

IBM almost certainly would have done this much sooner if Sun wasn’t the primary OO.o backer, but it needed to happen. Andy points out that the recent OOXML setback did impact the IBM decision to do this now. The question is, is this too late. I don’t think so. While it would have been great for ODF adoption if this would have happened earlier, I think we are still at a crossroads right now. OOXML approval is an uncertainty and the market is more open than it has been in a long time. Microsoft has overshot from a functionality standpoint and the emphasis is moving toward other items like Open Standards anyway. An opportunity this large only comes around once in a generation, as John McCreesh, the OpenOffice Marketing Project Lead, sums up well in the press release:

“This is great news for the tens of millions of users of OpenOffice.org and the thousands of individual members of the project”, said John McCreesh, OpenOffice.org Marketing Project Lead. “We welcome IBM’s contributions to further enhancing the OpenOffice.org product. But equally important is IBM’s future commitment to package and distribute new works that leverage OpenOffice.org technology supporting the ISO ODF standard. ODF is a once in a generation opportunity for the IT industry to unify round a standard, and deliver lasting benefit to users of desktop technology.”

For the record, that opportunity is about $15B annually. It’s easy to see why IBM and SUN were able to put their differences aside on this one. Carpe diem!

–jeremy

Truly Fair Disclosure

You have to hand it to Jonathan Schwartz and Sun. They’re doing some really interesting things. This time I’m not talking about ZFS or Dtrace, but rather this announcement about information disclosure:

We’ve got our fourth quarter (Q4) and full 2007 fiscal year earnings announcement coming up on Monday, July 30th.

I wanted to alert everyone to a change we’ll be making this quarter – related to how we publish those results, and going forward, other timely information about our financial performance. It’s a small, but exceptionally symbolic change.

I’ve asked our investor relations (known as “IR”) and press relations (“PR”) teams to gear up to announce our results via Sun’s web site and RSS feeds. We will announce our results to the general public via Sun’s IR web site before making that same information available through the third party news services that traditionally distribute such information to paying subscribers. We will simultaneously file a Form 8-K with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (for their redistribution).

Specifically, we will publish our results to this web site on July 30th at 1:00 PM (Pacific Time), which will in turn be disseminated via open syndication protocols (namely, RSS) to those who have subscribed to Sun’s news feeds. 10 minutes after publication to the internet, we will distribute this information via traditional news wires for dissemination to private news agencies and distribution vehicles.

Referencing a dialog we’ve established with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission, and its Chairman Cox, this will place, for the first time, the general investing public – those with a web browser or a cell phone – on the same footing as those with access to private subscription services. In effect, driving an open dialog directly with investors, rather than routing information through proprietary sources. Open is as open does.

I believe this change will increase the transparency of our business, fulfill our desire to disseminate information on a fair and equitable basis, and allow the network to be used for what it’s intended – connecting people and information.

As noted, this is a first for a public company and Sun should be commended for the transparency shown here. Here’s hoping that others follow.

–jeremy

Cautiously Optimistic

(via tbray) Here’s something you don’t see every day. A lawyer… from a large enterprise company (SUNW)… talking publicly about pending litigation… and sounding both reasonable and human in the process ;) It’s a brave new word. The topic? Patent troll cases. Two of them, both ludicrous from the looks of it. There is hope though:

You may believe that these are isolated examples. However, during the same time Sun was sued in these two cases, eight mobile phone companies, four major internet retailers and three computer companies were all sued for infringement by patent holding companies.

If this sounds like a waste of time, money and resources – it is. But, there have been some recent changes, both legislative and judicial, that make me feel at least a slight bit optimistic for a change.

On April 18th of this year, a bipartisan and bicameral bill was introduced in Congress entitled the “Patent Reform Act of 2007”.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court also announced two important decisions that provide more immediate relief. In Microsoft v. AT&T Corp. the court ruled 7-1 that “golden masters” shipped by Microsoft for installation on computers made and sold abroad are not “components” pursuant to 35 U.S.C. Sec. 271(f). Under U.S. patent law, no infringement occurs when a product that is the subject of a U.S. patent is made or sold in another country. It may be an infringement of a foreign patent, but U.S. patent laws do not apply. The exception is Section 271(f) which was enacted in 1984 in response to a case involving (of all things) shrimp deveining equipment. The defendant in that case conceded that it was prohibited from making or selling the infringing equipment in the U.S., but successfully argued that there was nothing in the law that prevented it from making the components for the equipment in the US and then having the assembled abroad.

and

In the current case, Microsoft conceded that it infringed AT&T patents related to digital speech compression. But, they objected to AT&T’s claim that a golden master should be considered a component under 271(f) and Microsoft, accordingly, liable for foreign damages.

In siding with Microsoft’s position, the court has brought some rationality into the world of software patents. Indeed, many in the software industry have been watching this case closely and considering whether (assuming the original decision was unchanged) it would be a reason for moving development efforts offshore.

How ironic that it was a Microsoft assertion that “brought some rationality into the world of software patents”, but there you have it. Hope that the pendulum may be swinging back to a more reasonable landscape where real innovation is protected and encouraged while litigious bastards, patents trolls and asininely obvious “innovations” are seen as such. At this point, I’ll take slight optimism. It’s a start.

–jeremy

Microsoft takes on the free world II

(a follow up to this post) As was expected, nearly everyone is commenting on the recent Fortune article about Microsoft and Patents. Even Linus has weighed in:

“It’s certainly a lot more likely that Microsoft violates patents than Linux does,” said Torvalds, holder of the Linux trademark. If the source code for Windows could be subjected to the same critical review that Linux has been, Microsoft would find itself in violation of patents held by other companies, said Torvalds.

“Basic operating system theory was pretty much done by the end of the 1960s. IBM probably owned thousands of really ‘fundamental’ patents,” Torvalds said in a response to questions submitted by InformationWeek. But he doesn’t like any form of patent saber rattling. “The fundamental stuff was done about half a century ago and has long, long since lost any patent protection,” he wrote.

“So the whole, ‘We have a list and we’re not telling you,’ itself should tell you something,” Torvalds said of Microsoft’s stance in the Fortune story. And for good measure, he added: “Don’t you think that if Microsoft actually had some really foolproof patent, they’d just tell us and go, ‘nyaah, nyaah, nyaah!'”

There’s so much good commentary on this this it’s not possible to link to everything, but I’d like to highlight a few. The OIN has posted a press release that contains some “facts to provide clarity around Linux and patents” and also points out that “In less than a year, OIN has accumulated more than 100 strategic, worldwide patents and patent applications that span Web / Internet, e-commerce, mobile and communications technologies. These patents are available to all as part of the free Linux ecosystem that OIN is creating around, and in support of Linux. We stand ready to leverage our IP portfolio to maintain the open patent environment OIN has helped create.”

Sun CEO Jonathan gives an extremely apropos summary of what Sun did when faced with adversity and pressure in its market:

So what’s my view on this interview in Fortune – in which one of Sun’s business partners claims the open source community is trampling their patent portfolio?

You would be wise to listen to the customers you’re threatening to sue – they can leave you, especially if you give them motivation. Remember, they wouldn’t be motivated unless your products were somehow missing the mark.

All of which is to say – no amount of fear can stop the rise of free media, or free software (they are the same, after all). The community is vastly more innovative and powerful than a single company. And you will never turn back the clock on elementary school students and developing economies and aid agencies and fledgling universities – or the Fortune 500 – that have found value in the wisdom of the open source community. Open standards and open source software are literally changing the face of the planet – creating opportunity wherever the network can reach.

That’s not a genie any litigator I know can put back in a bottle.

There’s one recurring theme that you’ll see in most of the commentary. This action is fairly definitive proof that Microsoft sees clear and imminent danger. They, for the first time in a long time, see something they can’t kill. It’s starting to show that they don’t know exactly what to do next. Stephe, a former Microsoftie, has the following advice:

Microsoft needs to get back in the business of building exceptional solutions to customer problems, instead of chasing a 1990s dream of IBM’s secondary revenues from hardware patent licensing, or worse yet threatening those same customers.

[Disclaimer: Microsoft is a client. But I swear I’m reconsidering that decision. It’s unclear to me that the mortgage payment is worth this much aggravation.]

What Microsoft will do remains to be seen. It seems the current near-universal consensus is that they won’t sue anyone, but will continue to try to squeeze money out of those willing to pay or partner, while figuring out the next strategic move. That may have an unintended consequence though. I’ve heard Don Marti say many times that much of the software industry is really a recruiting contest. You need look no further than Google for proof of this. The really smart engineers though, like to build cool software… not win by (or even have to deal with) litigation. Now sure, Microsoft has a lot of money to throw at the problem, but with a fairly stagnant stock price and plenty of companies doing really interesting things, money is no longer going to be enough to keep the very best. The long term implications of that should not be underestimated. Neither should the disruptive force of Open Source. Will either lesson be learned?

–jeremy

Sun hopes for Linux-like Solaris

Looks like Ian is already making a difference at Sun. From the article:

In an effort to spur adoption of Solaris, Sun Microsystems has begun a project code-named Indiana to try to give its operating system some of the trappings of Linux.

The project is one of the items on the to-do list of Ian Murdock, founder of the Debian version of Linux and, as of March, Sun’s chief operating systems officer. Though he wouldn’t confirm the name of the project, Murdock — who’s from Indiana — discussed the project’s essence at the JavaOne conference in the US this week, and Sun spokesman Russ Castronovo confirmed the name.

Sun has been trying for years to restore the luster of Solaris, a version of Unix that peaked in popularity in the late 1990s, but that since has faced a strong challenge chiefly from Linux. Sun has worked to reinvigorate Solaris by boosting its performance, offering it as a free download, making it an open-source project called OpenSolaris, and pushing a version that runs on servers using Intel’s and AMD’s mainstream x86 processors.

Linux and Solaris are cousins that stem from the same Unix heritage, if not from the same source code. But Linux fans simply have a hard time trying Solaris, Murdock said on Tuesday.

“It’s too unfamiliar. There’s a gulf,” Murdock said in an interview. “We need to make it familiar to people who know Linux inside and out.”

The Solaris userland has historically been quite painful for the average Linux user. It’s easy to take the niceties of the GNU tools for granted, until you have to live without them. Solaris 10 has changed some of this, but most of it involves either installing additional packages or messing with your PATH. There are some really compelling things about Solaris 10 (ZFS, Dtrace and zones to name a few). Getting the userland issues sorted would be a big win for Sun. Whether they will be able to do it while still keeping the backwards compatibility that Solaris is known for remains to be seen. Will Solaris turn into an ABI-stable version of Linux? Time will tell.

–jeremy

Disclosure: During a recent market dip I decided it was worth while to take a small position in SUNW. It certainly won’t change my opinion or how I blog though.

What Brand Means

While I think part of the recent turnaround at Sun has to so with their increased acceptance of both Open Source and the Open Source philosophy, a lot has to do with attitude like this. I like getting reminders like that post from Jonathan every once and a while.

The saying goes, “a brand is a promise.” On a personal level, I’ve always felt that statement was incomplete. A promise is the lowest common denominator of a brand – it’s what people expect. Think of your favorite brand, whether search engine or sneaker or coffee shop or free software, and you’ll know what I mean – a brand is an expectation. If you experience anything less, you’re disappointed. A promise seems like table stakes.

But a brand must go beyond a promise. To me, a brand is a cause – a guiding light. For fulfilling expectations, certainly, as well as dealing with the ill-defined and unexpected. It’s what tells your employees how to act when circumstances (and customers) go awry, or well beyond a training course.

What’s a brand?

It’s not a logo, an ad campaign or a money back guarantee. At minimum, it’s a promise that helps to define those items. Beyond that, it’s a cause that gives definition to the ill-defined, that tells you how to deal with the unexpected or the uncomfortable. It’s what motivates you to hire that fellow at the front desk, and to foster his instinct to feel, “Eureka, I found an opportunity to build an evangelist!”

That’s not about money or resources or training or contracts. It’s a cause. One your employees – and more critically, your customers – willingly join.

It’s with a similar attitude that I try to approach LQ every day. Some are surprised to hear that I still personally answer every email that comes in via the contact form. “Isn’t there a lot?” is a popular question. Now, we get hundreds of thousands of visitors… so the amount of mail that comes in substantial. That being said, someone has taken time to contact us. Our main goal has always been to help. They should expect an answer and seeing what comes in gives me a lot of valuable information on how we can improve. You’ll also notice that we’re extremely receptive to feedback. To me, it shouldn’t be any other way. Now, of course we don’t implement every suggestion we get – that’s just not feasible. We do listen to every suggestion though. We did seven years ago and I’ll strive to make sure we do seven years from now. If you ever have any feedback about any site on the LQ network, please don’t hesitate to contact me, be it public ally via this blog or via email (which should be pretty easy to find). Thanks again to both the mods and every LQ member. You make the site what it is.

–jeremy

Open Source and Business

In dealing with Open Source in the business world, it’s amazing how often I run into statements like “we don’t use Open Source because we need a supported product” or “isn’t all Open Source no cost” or “yeah, but you can’t make money with Open Source”. I think some of this misinformation is simply the fact that Open Source is a new way of doing things. Old habits die hard. Another part of it, of course, is the FUD spread by some straining to maintain the status quo. I won’t touch on that part today though ;) The fact is (in order) commercial Open Source companies have to offer quality support – it’s where they provide value and therefore where they make their money. They’re not selling you boxed bits. All Open Source does not come at no cost. There are many examples of this, but the misconception remains a common one. As for the last one, there are a ton of companies making money with Open Source. In some cases, lots of money. The fact that being Open can be extremely good for business is actually what sparked this post. This is from a recent post by Jonathan Schwartz:

For years we were called proprietary – a moniker that did more damage to Sun than any market downturn. And frankly, we’ve spent years recovering. But at this point, my hope is we’ve completely turned that slur on its head, that we’ve come to define open – more open than any other vendor, more open than open itself. From silicon to systems, software to storage and services.

Where open translates to “open to opportunity.”

So how is the Sun stock doing since the transition started? In the last two years the stock has almost doubled. The general consensus about Sun has gone from one of near death to one of rejuvenated innovation. Open Source isn’t only good for the consumer, it’s good for the whole chain. It’ll just take some longer to figure that out than others.

–jeremy

Ian Murdock is Joining Sun

This is big news. Ian Murdock is leaving the Linux Foundation and joining Sun. If you’re an OpenSolaris fan this has to be exciting, but it also means that Linux may actually get a fair shake inside Sun. Linux and Sun have had an odd history, with the company going back and forth between hot and cold multiple times. Looking at the latest OpenSolaris at SCALE this year, I have to admit I was impressed. Dtrace, zones, ZFS – there is some real innovation there. I still think Linux should be part of the overall Sun vision though, and OpenSolaris and Linux should be able to coexist. Ian makes the statement that Linux needs to play a clearer role in the platform strategy, so we’ll see what happens. Interesting times. Kudos to Sun for being able to pick up an absolutely top notch person and congratulations to Ian on the new job.

–jeremy

Will Sun License OpenSolaris Under GPLv3?

A recent eWeek article intimates that Sun will dual license OpenSolaris under the GPLv3 once it's officially released. Rich Green points out that no decisions will be made until after the GPLv3 is officially released, but indicates that Sun is in discussions with the community regarding the detailed terms of GPLv3. He also notes that he's happy with the current progress. That makes a lot of sense and I'd certainly not expect Sun to commit to a license that isn't even released yet. Putting that aside for a moment, let's assume that Sun does like the final terms of the GPLv3 (WARNING: there is no way to know whether that will be the case, this is just speculation based on that assumption). Dual licensing OpenSolaris under the GPLv3 would be an interesting move with a lot of up side for Sun. OpenSolaris is currently a bit of a step child to some in the Open Source community due to the CDDL. Releasing under the GPLv3 would allow Sun to use a license with some street cred while also keeping the code out of the Linux kernel. This is because Linus has made it extremely clear that the kernel will remain GPLv2 only. I've already mentioned that the GPLv2/v3 split has a chance to create a small fissure in parts of the community. We're used to a large number of licenses, but the GPL is a very dominant one.
However, a move of this nature could attract significantly more developer attention for OpenSolaris. I've seen speculation that Sun may encourage some Linux developers to dual license their code under the GPLv2 and GPLv3, but that makes little sense to me. To make it back upstream into OpenSolaris proper, the code would also need to be licensed under the CDDL. Note that is my understanding of how things would need to work. I am not a lawyer and a three license scenario is far behind what I'm able to properly grok. Back to actual code, I've already said how much I like DTrace and Sun is doing some interesting things elsewhere. The ability to increase collaboration and share code should be beneficial to all, even if kernel-to-kernel code flow is prohibited. Much of the early Linux growth came at the expense of Solaris and the other proprietary UNIX variants (not Windows, as many seem to think) so it's hard to gage what impact this may have on commercial and enterprise Linux uptake. For now, it's a moot point. Once the GPLv3 is actually released however, it will be something to keep an eye on.
(Note: I had typed a much longer version of this post that contained some additional thoughts and ideas. Firefox crashed as I was hitting submit and this is a quick reconstruction of my thoughts. Hopefully I've hit on all the salient points of my original post.)
–jeremy
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