Back in January, the consultancy Software Improvement Group warned government entities not to deploy OpenOffice.org until Oracle proved its commitment to treating the software as well, and with as much investment, as Sun Microsystems had. At the time, of course, Oracle was in the process of acquiring Sun, which had long been the primary sponsor of the open source productivity software.
Fast forward seven months, and it's looking like there was good reason for what may have seemed back then like overcautious advice. Not only is the database behemoth Oracle suing Google over its use of Java in Android, but it's also snipped the cord on OpenSolaris, the open source version of Sun's Solaris operating system. Oracle is effectively declaring war on open source software, in other words, and business users are right to be worried.
The 'Fork' factor
OpenOffice.org is not Oracle's only other open source undertaking. There's also MySQL, for instance, which will likely feel the effects of Oracle's revenue-minded wrath as well. A key difference, however, is that MySQL has already been "forked" several times, meaning that there are already equivalent versions under the care of multiple projects independent of Oracle. Drizzle is probably the most notable example among them, others include Percona and MariaDB.
Similarly, the newly announced Illumos project, led by Nexenta, promises to become an independent fork of OpenSolaris, thereby continuing development on that technology as well.
More than 40 million downloads
For OpenOffice.org, however, the future does not look nearly so well-assured, despite the fact of its global popularity. Back in early 2005 the software surpassed 40 million downloads, and its community estimates that it now accounts for some 10 percent of the overall office suite market.
As is generally the case with open source software, the absence of purchase records means that it's difficult to track and prove usage. Nevertheless, OpenOffice.org is included in many popular Linux distributions, including Ubuntu, and is surely the leading open source alternative to Microsoft's pricey Office suite. So what does it all mean for business users of OpenOffice.org? Is it time to begin looking for something else?
Where there's a will, there's a way
That would be premature. I believe it is likely that Oracle will axe its support for OpenOffice.org, preferring instead to focus on technologies such as StarOffice that bring in new revenues. That, however, does not mean the open office suite will disappear. Rather, one of the best aspects of the world of free and open source software is that where there's a community of interested developers and users with the will to keep a technology alive, there's no reason they can't do that, and it's a safe bet that some of them are, right now.
The code is still out there, and anyone with the desire could download it, rename it, and give it new life. Some 450,000 contributors have already worked on the project, after all, so there are plenty of people with the skills and interest to keep it going, and keep it going they will.
Oracle may have decided that profit is paramount, but the world's millions of open source users don't have to be dependent on its good will. OpenOffice.org is simply too big and too popular to be allowed to die, the time has come to give it its independence. The question then, of course, will be whether Oracle seizes such a move as new fodder for patent vengeance.