Apache OpenOffice: Can I depend on software built by volunteers?

It is often said that open source is produced by volunteers. Can you really build your business using software managed by volunteers? Since Apache OpenOffice 3.4 has just been released I thought it might be good to use that project as a case...

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It is often said that open source is produced by volunteers. Can you really build your business using software managed by volunteers?

Since Apache OpenOffice 3.4 has just been released I thought it might be good to use that project as a case study. In the past OpenOffice was owned by Sun and then Oracle. When people downloaded the software it was credited to a multi-national. Consequently, users felt comfortable. However, OpenOffice 3.4 has no such logo to present (false) hope to users. The move to the ASF was a move to an "all-volunteer Foundation," what does this mean for users?

To answer this we need to understand what an ASF volunteer is. Each person has their own reason for volunteering. Most people are there because it enables them to achieve what they need to achieve in a time and cost efficient manner. It is a mistake to assume they are all unpaid fly-by-night hackers. Some volunteer as a form of education, for others it will be ideology, for others fun etc. These are all common motivating factors, but for many it will also be part of a career.

The fact that many people volunteer as part of their day job raises the concern that a majority employer is able to wield control over a significant number of those volunteers and thus over the project. If this is the case is an Apache project really a community-led project?

In Apache projects no employer can "buy" influence by loading the project with staff members. The only people who have influence are those who do the work. Each of those people has equal influence. Since each volunteer is equal we only need one person to raise a concern for that concern to be heard on equal terms. Consequently, an experienced Apache contributor will consider community needs before they consider their employer’s needs. The reasoning behind this can be hard to understand, so let's break it down a little with an example:

Jane is paid to deliver results for her employer. If Jane finds that the best route to delivery is through community led open source she ought to fight for the survival of that community at all costs. It is in her interests to do so, both for her community reputation (employability beyond her current role) and for her employers satisfaction (employability in her current role). If Jane blows her community reputation she loses her ability to deliver for her employer as well as her ability to seek alternative employment relating to that community’s activities. A double whammy.

In Apache projects it is not possible for Jane's boss to say "make this happen at any cost". If Jane thinks the move is inappropriate for the community she can simply say "that will not fly, it is not good for the whole community and we cannot wield sufficient influence to entice the community to comply." Note that it is not Jane that is challenging her superiors; it is the community she represents. At this point Jane's job is to figure out a way forward that works for both the community and her employer.

The model is not perfect. It can break down if there is nobody to represent alternative community views. However, the ASF has mechanisms for addressing these problems when they arise. In the Apache Incubator, projects have independent mentors. In order to graduate from the Incubator a minimum level of diversity is required. If a graduated project should ever experience a diversity problem the board is geared up to recognise and address the issues quickly.

Under Sun and Oracle it was true that a single employer called the shots in OpenOffice. With the move to Apache OpenOffice the project is now managed by a community of independent volunteers. At this time the project has sufficient diversity to meet Incubator graduation requirements. With the release of Apache OpenOffice 3.4 another of those requirements has been satisfied.

Can you rely on software produced by volunteers at the Apache Software Foundation? Chances are you already do. Apache software is everywhere. The release of Apache OpenOffice 3.4 presents an opportunity to rely on it closer to home.

Posted by Ross Gardler

Ross is a committer and PMC member on a number of Apache projects, a champion and mentor on incubating projects including OpenOffice.org, and Vice President of the Community Development project. He is a founder of OpenDirective, a company specialising in making the connections between the academic research sector and the commercial product and service delivery sector. Until recently Ross was manager of OSS Watch, the open source advisory service to the UK higher and further education sector. He is chair of the TransferSummit/UK conference, which seeks to link the academic research sector and the commercial sector.

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