On September 28, 2010 members of the Open Office Project formed a new group called The Document Foundation, and made available a rebranded fork of OpenOffice provisionally named “LibreOffice”. The Foundation stated that it will coordinate and oversee the development of LibreOffice.
The fork is an obvious reaction to Oracle’s acquisition of Sun Microsystems, followed by a total lack of support or understanding of free software. Oracle were invited to participate in the free development and support of LibreOffice, such as by donating the OpenOffice.org trademark to The Document Foundation.
My fears of this ordeal is that Oracle sticks to their hardcore innovation killing plans and do not support TDF. By keeping the trademark for OpenOffice.org they may keep a marketing advantage and thus cause great confusion for users around the world who seek the license/patent free desktop office suite.
A well remembered fork of free software in recent times was that of the X.org foundation breaking free from XFree86. XFree86 and X.org are both software that implement the X11 protocol, which is responsible for giving your unix/linux software a way to display graphical user interfaces. Nothing the ordinary end-user cares about how its done and thus the transition went smoothly. Wikipedia sums it up like this:
In February 2004, with version 4.4.0, The XFree86 Project adopted a license change that the Free Software Foundation considered GPL incompatible. Most Linux distributions found the potential legal issues unacceptable and moved to a fork from before the license change.
As mentioned, this was a fork that never came to affect the end-user in terms of choice, installation and distribution. People who used computers never had to consider which X11 implementation to use and, in either case, just about every developer hopped on the X.org train to ensure future compatibility and possibility to continue developing it as the free software community.
With OpenOffice.org it’s different. Much different in fact, because end-users have gotten used to the name. Users of OpenOffice.org believe that it’s the alternative to Microsoft Office and that anything new – despite sharing the same codebase – is written from scratch. What I mean is the old marketing trick of “we made this first”, despite the fact that TDF consists of OOo old-timers.
Oracle may also, which is different from the XF86 case, employ enough programmers to keep up with LibreOffice features, under a possibly (likely) proprietary future license. This will hurt LibreOffice’s ability to compete given the lack of an established name with the end-users.
On the opposite side of the table Oracle may very well stop distribution whatsoever of OpenOffice.org. This would cause headlines which may scare people into using any proprietary “future safe” office suite. It would make it easier for LibreOffice to establish itself, but would be a big slap of FUD on the entire free software community.
Because of the above reasons, supported by possibilities which free software has uniquely contributed to our world, Oracle should definitely donate the trademark of OpenOffice.org to The Document Foundation. Anything else will at least temporarily hurt the distribution and support of the most competent open source, free software, office suite.
My reasons to believe that TDF will be able to succeed in moving users to LibreOffice however is simply the list of supporters including Novell, RedHat, Canonical and Google. Being the default office suite in the most widely used GNU/Linux distributions, at least free software users won’t be led astray.
Update 2010-10-08: I noticed that StarOffice, OOo’s proprietary soulsucker, has changed its name to – wait for it – Oracle Open Office. I think it’s quite clear now what will happen to OpenOffice.org. I did not explicitly know this until now, but I guess the founders of The Document Foundation did…