Bonum Certa Men Certa

Interview with Non-Sun OpenOffice.org Contributor, Charles-H. Schulz

Novell's promotion of Go-OO has earned it a lot of attention recently because Novell ridicules OpenOffice.org and harms the brand [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. There is a lot more to OpenOffice.org than just the software; there are translations, ISVs, support firms and so on.

Quite a few people were unhappy with what Novell had done. And yes, Michael Meeks cannot magically disassociate himself from Novell and use the "I'm just a hacker" defence (ironically enough, Meeks has obtained software patents, which he filed with Novell). As critics of the cannibalistic approach taken by Novell, we decided to approach other people who are affected, merely reaching out for their opinion.



We had the opportunity to do an interview with one of the better-known OpenOffice.org people and -- just to clarify in advance -- it ought to be stated that:

  1. He does not work for Sun
  2. He's an independent OpenOffice.org contributor (lead of the native-language confederation of OpenOffice.org: http://projects.openoffice.org/native-lang.html )
  3. His view are solely his


BN: As a bit of introduction, please tell us about yourself and your latest activities.

Charles-H. Schulz: My name is Charles-H. Schulz, I'm French and I live in Paris. I've been contributing to OpenOffice.org for over eight years now, and I started doing so around the launch of the 1.0 release. I am presently lead of the Native-Language Confederation of OpenOffice.org, which is the category of worldwide communities localizing and providing support, documentation, QA and marketing in languages other than English. I recently got involved in the ODF-at-WWW project that is a fantastic place in OpenOffice.org where you can really work on bringing OpenOffice.org to the next level and that includes, among other things, the Web.

I'm a founding parter of Ars Aperta (www.arsaperta.com) -- a small, independent consultancy in the fields of corporate strategy and management related to FOSS and Open Standards.

I'm also working with FFII, and the Digital Standards Organisation (aka Digistan), of which I'm a founding member.

BN: How receptive has Sun been to contributions from the outside, based on your experience?

CS: I think this deserves both a simple and a complex answer. The simple answer is that Sun has built a fully open source -- even Free Software -- project though OpenOffice.org. By this I mean that contributions, code contributions among others are tested and integrated in the software we release. The source code is out there, the binaries as well, development process is done by collaboration through mailing lists and wiki, CVS (and now SVN).

“...independent contributors outnumber Sun engineers by 10 to 1 inside the QA project.”Going more into details, Sun has the technical leadership in the OpenOffice.org project. I personally don't have a problem with that. What this means is that sometimes, patches are refused on purely technical merit. Whether those decisions are technically debatable might perhaps be the case sometimes. But generally speaking there is no problem. It is -- I believe -- quite easy to find both corporate and independent contributors who submitted patches, code or anything you can find in the way of contributions who were able to do so without any difficulty, provided they were following the guidelines and that their contributions were technically acceptable. That being said, OpenOffice.org has a very, very complex code base. This in turn causes a problem that is often overlooked: you need to study the code and the architecture, and thus devote a significant amount of your time doing so before efficiently contributing to OpenOffice.org. That's why we always find it hard to recruit engineering resources: you don't contribute code with your left foot when you're patching OpenOffice.org. But I agree that everything should be done in order to lower the barriers of participation to our project.

BN: What role does QA play in the lifecycle of OOo development?

CS: Since we're developing an end-user software suite we cannot tolerate leaving our software at a low level of quality. Of course, there are always bugs and we have ramped up our QA teams and resources significantly over time. QA gets to register the builds, test them at various levels according to the development, localization and QA processes. It also approves and decides whether the builds should be released or not. So to answer your question directly: QA and the QA project play a central role in our development and release process. By the way, it should perhaps be noted that independent contributors outnumber Sun engineers by 10 to 1 inside the QA project.

BN: Would you classify Go-OO as a branch or a fork?

CS: Both. I would have rather liked to answer: a branch, mostly, but some recent developments about Go-OO have obviously changed this situation. What should perhaps be reminded is that Go-OO is a Web site that hosts a concurrent build system to the one existing on the OpenOffice.org web site, called “ooo-build”. This build system has been around for ages. In fact, it's been used by many Linux distributions that found it more convenient for various reasons (basically, the builds were optimized for Linux).

“That furiously looks like someone is ready to fork by diverting and duplicating development resources from the original project.”At the same time, this build system was also used (even by Sun) to test new patches. The common conception here is that while the OpenOffice.org -Sun- build system (simply called “vanilla” for convenience purposes) is sometimes more conservative in that it does not integrate all the patches that fast. The reason for that is simple: QA. The ooo-build does not really test the patches it integrates, while the vanilla build system does. In short, the ooo-build is faster and easier to use, but produces builds that crash more often and have more bugs. You can experience that if you use any *Suse distribution or Ubuntu. Most of the other distributions have gradually stopped using it, precisely because of a certain lack of reliability that was experienced. The OpenOffice.org project now provides OpenOffice.org packages in .rpm, .deb and .tgz formats. We are also looking to improve our packaging on Linux: While straightforward anywhere else, the OpenOffice.org installation is still complex for an inexperienced end-user on Linux.

But the ooo-build has its own relevance and its own use. In this sense, it was a branch for a long time, and there was a widely-held view among the OpenOffice.org community that its existence was actually helpful.

The way you transition from a Web site with a separate build system to a fork is in fact quite easy. And what is only needed is the will for those Web site owners to decide to create a fork. At this stage, we can still keep a status quo, make sure we work out on any technical issues we can to have the two kinds of builds produced compatibly (that means mostly directly upgradeable from one another) and there, there will not be a fork, mainly a branch. Unfortunately go-oo has turned from an “annex” web site where several specific resources were available to a development platform parallel to what exists on OpenOffice.org: mailing lists, patches, builds, etc. That furiously looks like someone is ready to fork by diverting and duplicating development resources from the original project.

BN: Would you feel more comfortable if it was a project like Debian that deviated and managed a derivative of OOo?

CS: Anyone has the right to fork. It's Free and Open Source Software anyway. But I don't think a fork is a solution as it does all but adding up resources. Rather, it divides them, duplicates efforts and confuses users. There is worse stuff: in our case, I don't think that the forker would have the necessary resources to maintain the development efforts and have a coherent roadmap. At this stage, I would even be curious to know how bug squashing and issue management would be properly handled. As an example, I wonder how some of the large deployments of this particular flavour of OpenOffice.org would react if they were told that their own feedback was going to a fork of OpenOffice.org.

There is another couple of things that are of importance to me. Go-OO, if we are to believe its credentials, belongs to Novell. Now it is worth pointing out that at no point in the history of OpenOffice.org we ever got anything in the way of an official statement about Novell. That means that this is a silent fork. There is, if that is the intent of this company, no word, no declaration, nothing that basically says: “we feel we're doing a better job than you do” or “ we feel we're being unfairly treated”. That is something I find odd. The second element of importance is that we should get some sorts of governance structure and charter by Novell. You don't send your code in the wild and not asking yourself some questions. I know that OpenOffice.org was fiercely criticized by some people employed by Novell for having a copyright assignment, something Novell often demands in its own sponsored projects. But this legal vagueness of sorts is a bit odd: whom does your builds belong to? What happens in case of a legal problem? Is there a code steward? You don't need to be a consultant to ask those questions. And so far we have no answer.

BN: What role has the Novell-implemented OOXML translator played in allowing Microsoft's plot against ODF to carry on?

CS: Common work on OOXML and a translator was part of the Novell and MS agreement, as far as we know. Having played a role in the OOXML standardization “adventure”, Novell was being constantly taken as an example of “another open source implementation” of OOXML. Sometimes, as it was the case in Mexico we had Novell employees, such as Miguel de Icaza, sitting on the Mexican standards organization and strongly advocating for OOXML to be standardized. To me it looks like Novell has been vassalized and under the influence of Microsoft to the point where they had to defend the indefensible. Now, I was not born yesterday, and I know that in theory as well as in practice, corporations' primary role is to generate revenue. Hence you will find several corporations out there who will help FOSS with the right hand and promote the exact opposite with the left. Novell strikes me as different: it blurs the lines, puts a little bit of this in a little bit of that, calls a cat a dog and delivers software that is open source with conditions.

BN: What role, if any, do you believe Novell/Microsoft patents play here? What about Sun?

CS: It's very hard to tell. My personal view is that Microsoft does not have many patents and that most them are low quality assets. In short, when Microsoft makes claims about owning some significant amount of IP inside Linux for instance, it spreads FUD, and does just this. Anything further directly coming from Redmond would be very unlikely, because they have nothing. In short, it's “all hat no cattle” as they say in Texas. But they keep on applying pressure and make extravagant claims about their supposed ownership of every bit of open source code out there. I am in favour of full disclosure. Open Source code is, well, open source. It's out there. Anyone can grab it, freely modify and redistribute it. Proprietary code? I'm sure we would find some code blurbs that could turn out to be funnier than Easter eggs.

I have read, reread, and read again the Novell/Microsoft agreement. I think it's not clear whether this is an outright violation of the GPL in spirit or a legal flaw that has been exploited in it. But it surely changed the strategy of Novell in a way that poses a certain number of threats to FOSS users. It is also easy to notice that Novell's behaviour changed inside the OpenOffice.org community right after that agreement.

BN: Going forward, how do you suggest that the projects target their main competitor, Microsoft Office, rather than one another?

CS: First, remember that Novell acquired both Suse and Ximian. The Ximian team is still working inside Novell, and it looks like the Ximian business model got ultimately translated inside Novell's own strategy. Basically, when it comes to its open source offerings, Novell implements the Ximian strategy of taking the code, branching it, repackaging it and generating revenue from it. The way Ximian was doing it was a bit problematic, as it was not really beneficial to the communities it was deriving the code from and the value proposition to their customers wasn't clear either. I guess it's not my business, but such a mindset has partly led us to where we are today.

“We want to take OpenOffice.org to the next level, because we don't use office suites the same way were using them five years ago.”At this stage, I don't see any plans -nor any relevance- for the OpenOffice.org project to target go-oo. It just doesn't make any sense: what would be talking about? Different patches? I don't think the market even cares about that, I don't think it's even an audible message. I know that some people send messages out there, “my build is better than yours, I don't like your community”, but these same people should think: does it really benefit customers?

In regards to Microsoft Office, which is the true competitor to OpenOffice.org, our value proposition is clear: we are a full-featured office suite that brings its users the benefits of true open standards, quality, stability and Free Software. We want to take OpenOffice.org to the next level, because we don't use office suites the same way were using them five years ago. So we will increasingly interact with the Internet and on an online level, becoming the hub for creative writing, design and office work for everyone. That's what we stand for, and we will remain true to our mission and to our soul.

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