Oracle doesn't understand 'community'

Fresh from his very public spat with Oracle, which lead to the forking of the OpenOffice.org productivity suite into LibreOffice, software developer Michael Meeks talks to THINQ about the future of the project and the reasons for the split.

Describing the LibreOffice project as "cool, awesome, exciting," Meeks described the split from the Oracle-owned OpenOffice.org project as, "not an ultimatum, but an invitation. Obviously," he said, "Oracle need to see where we're going, and the momentum, and what they can provide. It takes a long time for people steeped in ten to fifteen years of proprietary development to understand free software, and if you look at how that community was structured inside OpenOffice, there were many obvious weaknesses and it's a shame that their experience has been that free software does not provide compelling value [to Oracle.]"

Asked about the friction that has lead to the forming of the Document Foundation and the community's very public split from Oracle, Meeks told us: "The Oracle people have decided that all of the non-Oracle people on the Community Council, which is there to govern the community, should be recused - as in, kicked off the council - because they have a 'conflict of interest' with the OpenOffice.org community that they're supposed to be governing."

"Apparently," he said, "the conflict of interest is that all of the community non-affiliated Oracle people, of which there are four from different companies, all individually have a conflict of interest with the community which they represent, whereas Oracle is the one who owns the community, and it's theirs, and it exists for them, and thus these people should be kicked off because they're not doing what Oracle wants."

Meeks explained that this was a clear symptom of Oracle's negative attitude towards community: "Community is something that does things for you, it's not something that you're a member of, if it doesn't do what you like then walk all over it and ignore it."

LibreOffice, by comparison, is described by Meeks as a far more open environment and truer to the open source ethos than the now Oracle-led OpenOffice.org. Explaining that in its first month of existence the project had attracted sixty entirely new contributors, Meeks was of the opinion that the find the lack of copyright assignment and better interaction with the community was proving a breath of fresh air.

One of the main tasks undertaken as part of the LibreOffice split, Meeks explains, is code cleanup: "We had libraries there that have been deprecated for a decade, and no-one had bothered to clean up the code and remove this old cruft - we had a 500,000-line patch removing non-compiled code that was just sat in the repository."

Meeks said the biggest driving force behind the growth of LibreOffice is due to, "getting rid of the corporate dominance and having vendor neutrality, getting rid of copyright assignment to an individual corporation, and saying 'yes, we want your changes!'"

Speaking on the issue of copyright assignment, Meeks explained that he feels that its use in open source projects "is a mistake," but admitted that projects such as gcc use it to great effect: "There's a huge difference between a non-profit asking for copyright assignment, such as the FSF, and a commercial entity."

Addressing criticisms against OpenOffice.org, and equally against the LibreOffice project, raised by Microsoft in a recent propaganda video, Meeks said "I appreciate having competitors that say what they think, and I watched [the video] and it's quite funny in some ways, and there is some truth in some of the points that they make that we are addressing: they mention VBA macros, and the problems with macros that people suffer, and that's a legitimate concern and has been a problem with OpenOffice, but Novell, in conjunction with IBM and others, has done a lot of work there to make it work better and to make some of those problems go away."

Meeks seemed upbeat about the video, claiming: "The validation of OpenOffice and it user base, and LibreOffice as it will be called, is exciting. If you have a hundred million plus users, it's easy to find a few people that have had bad experiences - the statistics of large numbers are such. If we did a similar thing on the other side, although personally I prefer a more positive style to messaging if I can, then you could clearly find people out of Microsoft's even larger user base who have had documents lost - it's not something I've never heard of before, and I've heard it for any office suite."

The one overriding feeling to come from speaking to Meeks is the incredible passion he brings to the subject, clearly feeling strongly that the split from Oracle is the right thing for the project and the community behind it. Despite not blaming Oracle for the direction the project has taken, saying that, "I don't think Oracle has made a substantive difference to how the project is run" compared to previous owner Sun Microsystems, Meeks claims, "it turns out that what they [the Oracle-led project members] want to do is quite unpleasant."

It's clear that LibreOffice is going to be a project to watch: with a large community of enthusiastic volunteers behind it, industry figures such as Michael Meeks offering their vociferous support, and talk of a LibreOffice booth at next year's CeBit conference, Oracle could find itself taking the Document Foundation up on its offer of a collaboration in exchange for the rights to the OpenOffice.org name.