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Open letter to Apache regarding OpenOffice / LibreOffice

Open letter to an Apache mailing list regarding their OpenOffice incubation plan. This was originally written in June 2011, so is out of date but much still applies.

Having written code in Microsoft Office, why this Apache fork is bad is intuitively obvious to me. I wish everyone had the same instincts. In the days since I first saw the announcements, I’ve been reading and learning a number of additional facts that helped me understand all the reasons why for this situation.

Here I will summarize the “no” vote reasons against this Apache incubation proposal. While reading, I gained respect for the Apache foundation and the OpenOffice brand. There is love people attach to these names. Apache could offer poop on a stick and it would have downloads and people curious about how to make it better.

Many of us want all of these good ideas and energies to be channeled. The LibreOffice team is not a raging success yet and they’ve just climbed some big hills. Yet no one inside is complaining of a reason to fork.

Given all I have read, this is my (unfinished) list for the arguments against:

  1. This is mostly a code dump, not the set of 50(?) full-time engineers who have created / been maintaining this code.
  2. This technology is massive. It is about the same size as the Linux kernel (10 million lines). This is a world that thousands could get lost in. Because the codebase is so large, it makes the cost of the fork that much greater.
  3. IBM’s priority will be on Symphony and Notes (which build on top) more than the core code.
  4. Much of the expertise is at Sun / Oracle, and IBM is not bringing many of them over.
  5. IBM’s biggest investment here is “open source” evangelists. They believe the community will build everything for them.
  6. This is mostly a cabal of IBM / Sun evangelists trying to confuse Apache into letting them fork the LibreOffice community.
  7. The Apache foundation has a lot of experience, but none with this technology. Therefore, their help will be limited. It is like asking a hospital to fix your car.
  8. The Apache foundation requires developers use SVN, which is not as good as Git for handling a large distributed project.
  9. The code dump is missing a lot (filters, images, translations, etc.)
  10. OpenOffice is now primarily a brand to be preserved.
  11. This brand is in jeopardy now.
  12. There is nothing to incubate. LibreOffice has just built everything you need.
  13. The Apache License (AL2) is not within the spirit of the tradition of this codebase.
  14. There is no company waiting to build some amazing technology like Watson in LibreOffice but hold back because of its “restrictive” license. These are just fantasies IBM can promise and a rhetorical trick because anything about the future is impossible to disprove.
  15. A proprietary Watson could be built on LO today. LGPL is the ideal license for this codebase, a compromise between GPL and Apache. LibreOffice should not compromise anymore.
  16. This proposal is considered to have a practical license agreement, but grabbing code changes from LibreOffice is said to be impractical. This is not considered a problem.
  17. Linus said that making Linux the GPL was the “best thing he ever did.”
  18. Copyleft is compelling to small LibreOffice contributors. “Do you really want to write Apache 2 (AL2) so that IBM can make it proprietary and sell it?”
  19. The move from Java towards Python in LO will add more barriers.
  20. There is a lot to be done: polish, services, plugins, mobile, etc. We don’t have people to waste.
  21. LO has just recruited many of the most passionate and experienced volunteers and other unaffiliated third-parties.
  22. People will show up here because of the Apache, OpenOffice, and IBM name. They will not understand what is going on.
  23. There were 87 contributors who signed on to this proposal, but many are just curious.
  24. The leaders create bad plans, find curious and naive people who “support” it, and use those numbers as proof that their plan has merit and should go forward.
  25. The community of contributors to this podling is artificially inflated with “advocates” and not many people with expertise in the OO codebase.
  26. Microsoft would root for Apache to fork the LibreOffice community.
  27. LibreOffice is a young community, so some are easily confused and frightened. Many barely know this name “LibreOffice”. Meanwhile LO needs and would love to have more people.
  28. The OO brand was given up by Oracle primarily because of the success of LibreOffice.
  29. The OpenOffice brand would be very valuable to LO today.
  30. These “open source” evangelists from IBM, Sun, etc. should hand over the OpenOffice trademark before they hurt someone. LibreOffice can maximize the value and carry it on best right now.
  31. They need all kinds of help. They are not turning down one contribution, and no one inside is threatening to fork because of problems.
  32. The hardware / bandwidth costs are not very expensive. It is the human costs.
  33. It is not just a question of if you fail, but what is the damage in that failed experiment.
  34. There is also the opportunity cost of doing something better than failure.
  35. Rather than using resources to help LibreOffice, they are used to hurt them, and waste their own life rebuilding what LibreOffice has just finished.
  36. If this podling fails, it could hurt the value of the OpenOffice brand, LibreOffice, waste resources (these emails are just the start), hurt Apache’s reputation, etc.
  37. Forks are one of the biggest reasons why free software has struggled in places. For an example in another industry, look at Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD.
  38. People at IBM responsible for Notes / Symphony may get bad reviews for building on top of a dying fork and when internal customers complain the product isn’t as good as what comes with Linux. These “open source” evangelists are supposed to have their finger on the pulse of the community, not their finger in the face of the community. I stole that from someone 😉
  39. No major revisions have been proposed.
  40. A “no” vote on current idea is fail-fast and the potential for a better plan.
  41. LO see this as a danger. They received more cash donations since this announcement.
  42. It will only be a trickle of volunteers. If more show up, LibreOffice can recruit in bulk.
  43. With the interested people already occupied, this will never catch up with LibreOffice.
  44. Wise people I have consulted with in LibreOffice believe this will fail.
  45. Some are not even worried anymore, but I am less confident.
  46. Some believe the Apache foundation is being used to legitimize a premature idea.
  47. I believe the result will be the same no matter the vote unless the plan is changed. This plan is like an animal chewing off its own paw even though it wasn’t stuck in a trap.
  48. Once you have written failure into your plans, like to build a house out of sand instead of concrete, these “friendly” meetings to resolve differences cannot achieve much.
  49. May, 2012: IBM has made their proprietary Symphony code available for free. Initially, many thought that the primary reason IBM wanted this project in the Apache foundations was because because they wanted to build a proprietary Symphony on top, and only the lax Apache license allowed for this. So now that the their proprietary code is free, even this reason disappears.


I am an un-affiliated observer rooting for Linux on the desktop and Python over Java. I have spent years surveying and writing about Linux so I’ve come to respect the Apache server very much. Any rude bits in my mails were directed at IBM 😉 I believe they should know better than to attempt to fork a community. I think the Apache foundation has been caught in the cross-fire of the language and license battles. I feel sorry for these political battles. There are also actual proprietary competitors to fight as well! Isn’t that the most important?

Even if this is born, and fails, the community will pick up the pieces. It has many times before. The LO opinion of the plan is close to unanimous and strongly-felt. My feelings are more mixed.

Perhaps this can help serve as impetus for the vote. Many are curious to its result and are anxiously awaiting.

Hope this work is helpful.

Warm regards,


Update: June 13: The podling was created. Oh well, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It is tragic that they’ve designed failure into their plans. Not only that, the opportunity cost of combining resources immediately. Reading their plan, some sentences are reasonable, and some stand out like daggers.

A better plan would have helped instead of hurt. These emails were a huge waste of time, and just the start. Many “open source” evangelists are actually hindrances. Some think forks are okay because they’ve happened before. This is like advocating for slavery because slavery has happened before.

The worst part is that the supporters of this plan made no changes to address the major flaws found by the community since the proposal was first announced. It is rude not to retract and make a new plan when relevant people have big objections to your idea. If you want to get code into the Linux kernel, you need to fix all the problems people find. Plans can be refined and improved, but this did not happen. The cost of the flaws only gets more expensive as this goes forward. Therefore, it was cheapest to vote this down now, so we can make a new plan. The new plan would involve something like making LibreOffice and its license the mainline, and merging TDF and Apache. Who knows where it goes from here.


  1. I voted for LO with my (donation) money. I hope other would do the same.

    Anyhow, OO goal of better interoperability with M$O never been priority to me. Yet, the LO’s goal of being leaner and slimmer, more portable and more developer friendly – is something I can wholeheartedly subscribe to.

    Otherwise, I do not see why AF should refuse the Oracle’s offer – all I see is that by now developers should have no reasons to work on OO instead of LO. LO is where the action now.

    • Sweet that you donated.

      Better MSO support is worth a lot to big businesses and governments. I am guessing you are neither. You don’t have to use the interop features just like you don’t have to read every Wikipedia article 😉

  2. My question for you is why Python?

    My two problems with LibreOffice/OpenOffice have been the clunkyness of the interface and Microsoft Office compatibility.

    Isn’t Java generally considered to be faster than python?

    • My book has a chapter on Java versus Python.

      The UI will get better if more people work together.

      Java is faster in microbenchmarks, but people often write a mix of Python / C. Check Mercurial and SciPy, for example. There is also Cython and PyPy.

  3. I fail to see how the licensing will matter; in fact I would be happier with an Apache-licensed project. Why? Because copyleft doesn’t work.

    The fact is, even if IBM sells a derivative of OpenOffice.org, it won’t affect OpenOffice.org at all. There have always been people that have loved free software and that won’t change.

    Copyleft licensing is aimed towards people who don’t care about free software: it makes it impossible to license it otherwise. Since OpenOffice.org is aimed at people who care about free software, I fail to see how this is a problem.

    Besides, licensing OpenOffice.org under the Apache license will allow much more flexibility. This is a good thing!

    • Did you know Linus said that making Linux the GPL was the best thing he ever did? You would know that if you had read my book 😉 In fact, I’ll add it to the list of reasons above.

      IBM would not have contributed back its enhancements to the kernel if it weren’t also a legal requirement.

      It is wrong to think that the Apache license is key to progress in office suites. Look at how quickly LibreOffice is growing. LGPL is a good compromise.


  4. Hey, guys, about this “well, IBM sells an OOo derivative” blah-blah-blah: Nobody uses Lotus! Nobody cares!

    And all arguments about “if it weren’t for the GPL, IBM wouldn’t have contributed to Linux” is absolutely moronic – it’s not falsifiable – you don’t know anything about that parallel world – you can’t say “true” or “false”.

    How braindead GPL zealots, are, I mean, for real…

    • I know what IBM thinks about free software. I learned about it while reading email discussions. They don’t like it very much. Their philosophy is to contribute as little as possible.

      I cannot prove what happens in a parallel world, but given IBM’s behavior in other places like this, it does provide good evidence.

  5. I’m a private individual who has no vested interest in OSS except that I like the idea of “free” as in Open Source software. I also like software that’s free!

    I’ve been using OpenOffice for some years and, apart from the odd glitch and bug, I find it okay for my purposes. I did not immediately jump ship when LibreOffice was forked because I wanted to see what Oracle would do.
    I heard about the Oracle decision on Linux Forums and read the helpful contributions of Bob Suter (http://www.sutor.com/c/2011/06/some-remarks-on-openoffice-going-to-apache/), Vice-President of something at IBM, and his “colleague”, Rob Weir (http://www.robweir.com/blog/2011/06/apache-openoffice.html). The interesting thing about their writings is that neither mentioned LibreOffice. Nothing, Nada. I doesn’t exist in their world. Being a political animal, but no kind of zealot, I realised that there’s something very wrong here. I recognise a self-serving scam when I smell one.

    The outcome is that I’ve decided to switch to LibreOffice and will advise others to do likewise. More power to you Keith!

  6. Apache Software Foundation is a respectable community of software developers who have proven their mettle with technical excellence whereas the bitches of FsF and cronies like Keith Curtis shoutd themselves hoarse.

    Open Office will do well, while the likes of Mullah Stallman and his Taliban will resort to politics and F.U.D. together with James Wheeler, hon’ble Taliban and Keith Curtis who spread F.U.D. while in Microsoft and continues to spread F.U.D. while outside.

    • At least you are making an argument this time around. I’m not a crony of the FSF. I have additional reasons for agreeing with them.

      If you had read all the emails, you’d have a different perspective. This is not against Apache, this is against a fork. This is against the proposed plan. There are much better plans. Also, this is a cabal of “open source” evangelists from IBM, Sun, etc. who are pushing this idea. The community is happy with LibreOffice. No one inside LibreOffice is discussing forking it because they are unhappy.

      This plan will hurt the community, not help. Do you understand the difference? Don’t make it about individuals, make it about what is best for the community.


  7. I think it is very telling that IBM waited until the Apache Foundation got OO before talking about releasing Symphony source code. Why now why not 4-5 months ago. Why support OO over LO? Once you start asking these questions you begin to real problems with all of this.

  8. A few reasons why IBM might have chosen to put their efforts into Apache OpenOffice rather then libreOffice.

    Apache OpenOffice license allows the code to flow to libreOffice, the libreOffice license does not permit the opposite.

    Perhaps the constant attacks on IBM’s contributions to open source from the libreOffice folks had something to do with it.
    Considering the efforts that IBM has made to both linux, and other opensource projects, the code they have contributed to a multitude of projects, it is rude. Once again IBM last year IBM was a top contributer to linux.

    Apache OpenOffice is openoffice, it isn’t a spin off, it is the original openoffice. That is exactly who IBM should be supporting rather then a spin off.

    Now, why did so many linux distributers jump on board with libreoffice is the question that pops into my mind. Do they somehow think it is to their benefit to dis both IBM, a major linux contributer, and Apache – a major opensource foundation?

    • The LibreOffice license (LGPL, basically) is very widely used and accepted. The problem is Apache. Your understanding of permissions is backwards. There is nothing in the LibreOffice license which forbids Apache or anyone from using their code.

      People attack IBM because of how their employees behave. It is a big company, and some of their employees are unhelpful to Linux. Linux would be better off if this project had never been created. This is something Microsoft would want IBM to do. If you are actually helping your enemies more than you are helping your friends, does that deserve some negative response?

      The OpenOffice project was basically disbanded. All that is left is a trademark and a copy of the code. The idea that this should be given to Apache to rebuild what LibreOffice had just created is pure duplication of effort.

      Linux distros jumped on board with LibreOffice because of the impressive people behind it, and because they had a good reason for a fork and a good plan. This Apache incubation project is missing all of those.

  9. The Apache license 2.0 is very widely used and accepted as well. Code with the Apache license 2.0 is able to be used with LGPLv3 and GPLv3. Which means Libreoffice developers can use the code from Apache Openoffice if they desire.

    IBM employees have consistently been among the top contributors to Linux for years, see the Linux Foundation reports. Just to let you know Microsoft was in the top 20 contributers to Linux this year. Apparently the Linux developers do not have a problem with either IBM or Microsoft contributing as long it is on the right terms.

    Openoffice.org was still up and very active. There were many users of the software, the software could still be downloaded, the source code available, the forums and website still active and used. That doesn’t meet the definition of “disbanded”. Both legally and in fact, Openoffice.org was still a functioning organization. Trademark, code, copyrights, website, users, documentation, forums, etc. Apache OpenOffice is OpenOffice, LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice. Apache OpenOffice does not need to “rebuild” what LibreOffice has done. Some duplication of probably usual when a fork exists, unless both the fork and the original are willing to work together closely. As it is LibreOffice can use the Apache OpenOffice code when they wish, so it is only the reverse that would need to be resolved. Even then, developers with LibreOffice can still give their code to Apache OpenOffice as well since neither Apache or LibreOffice require copyright assignment. Thus the only real cause of duplication of effort would be the developers of LibreOffice, as copyright holders, decision.

    Apache OpenOffice has a plan, its on the web, as with other incubator projects that are part of the Apache Software Foundation. There are also impressive people behind Apache OpenOffice, so I hope you were not attempting to imply otherwise. After all, the word “impressive” is rather subjective.

    The reality is starting LibreOffice was a reasonable and justifiable decision, and even continuing LibreOffice is reasonable. However, the best for both LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice at this point, is for both groups to work together to the fullest extent possible, and show respect for the members of both groups to further both the needs of the users and the opensource in general.

  10. The Apache license is not the right license for this codebase. This article explains more: http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2011/06/01/open-office.html The problem is not with the Apache license or the LGPL license, it is with Apache organization which refuses LGPL code. This is unlike LibreOffice and the Linux kernel which take both kinds.

    Yes, there are some IBM employees who have been helpful to Linux, but that doesn’t mean all are. Those who created this project are actually hurting.

    The OpenOffice team was disbanded by Oracle in the sense that basically the entire team of 50-100 full-time engineers who had been building this monstrosity were laid off. If the top 100 Linux kernel developers left the project, would you not say it was in trouble? So calling this the natural place for OpenOffice even though the core team is gone is inaccurate.

    LibreOffice has I think more core developers remaining, and could use IBM’s help to hire more. Instead, IBM is rebuilding from scratch everything that Libreoffice has just done. That is what they spent their first year doing. There is a ton of duplication of effort between this Apache project and the LibreOffice project. This is the biggest reason why this incubation plan is a mistake.

    LibreOffice offers their code to Apache and everyone else. It is Apache who refuses to take it. You make it seem like LibreOffice is the impediment, when it is Apache policies. You are still confused about who is the impediment.

    Yes, OpenOffice had a plan. I said their plan was bad, not that they didn’t have one. The industry had plans for HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Were those plans good? Google Knol had a plan, how was that?

    Apache is a good organization, it is the IBM employees who cause me to say that this incubation project doesn’t have good people. They poison the project.

    I agree with your sentiment that both sides should work together. The key is how you go about such a thing. Note that “showing respect” is not the problem. The problem is that a fork is social engineering. If you create a license that prevents you from sharing code, and you create separate teams, bug databases, etc. to work on the same problems, you are making a mess that you can’t fix by being nice.

    “Showing respect” is not how you fix this situation. You fix it by (for example) having the LibreOffice code and license become the mainline and merging The Document Foundation and Apache. Your words about attitude demonstrate that you don’t yet understand the inefficiencies. All I can say is that this incubation project wastes resources of both sides more and more every day. So have hope that if don’t appreciate this problem now, you may as the tally adds up.

    I don’t believe you read my whole post at the top because some of what you write I have already rebutted there.

    • Not surprisingly, I differ with you on the license issue. The author of the article you point to prefers copyleft licenses, and prefers the most restrictive when feasible. That might have something to do with their view. Interestingly, the article pointed to by that article was only on the copyleft licenses.

      I prefer the least restrictive license in all cases. Why? Freedom. The more information people have and can use effectively, including communicate that information effectively, the more freedom people can have. Software is about using and communicating information, it is a tool for freedom.

      IBM isn’t a bad organization, of course individuals should typically be judged on their own merits or otherwise, not of the organization. I’m not sure what IBM employees you refer to, or the basis for you statements against them, but IBM does want OpenOffice to succeed. They are probably more ambivalent towards LibreOffice but that is understandable considering they have worked with ASF and OpenOffice before.

      They should share bug databases, there is no reason they can’t.
      They should share as much code as they can.
      Both organizations should do so. Forks can be good, or bad. Given that LibreOffice did fork, we can’t really undo that. The best outcome is that the entire community work together to the fullest, because otherwise the entire opensource community, and freedom, will suffer.

      • I think you are getting confused when you consider the copyleft requirements restrictive. This restriction is merely to allow a free software product to stay free. Consider the universe of possibilities of restrictiveness. Consider the sort of restrictions that exist on Microsoft software. Aren’t you “restricted” in your ability to use their code given the fact you can’t even legally download it? To call copyleft restrictive is very close to the opposite of the truth.

        You are further confused because all the Apache license does compared to copyleft is allow people to make proprietary code, which is antithetical to freedom. So you claim to be for freedom, but the freedom you seem to consider so key is the freedom to have a future with a lack of freedom. Put another way: you are defending non-freedom, but you think you are defending freedom.

        They won’t be able to share code because of the separate tree that has been created. Don’t you see how creating a new source control system, and many other things, are creating structures that makes it basically impossible to work together? How are patches to be passed back and forth when the codebases have diverged? I’m not going to argue that forks are never good, but the situation here is very clear.

        You claim to want people to work together, but you don’t claim to particularly care if the social structures are setup to ensure that happens. This suggests you have a contradiction in your thinking.

  11. Regardless of politics, personal believes, and licenses I could never get used to to LibreOffice. I never had any issue with OpenOffice, for it simply functioned perfectly and never failed a task. When LibreOffice became accepted as the office of choice for most distributions I started using it and after a few months of having the exact same issues and bugs on several different systems and platforms, I just could not take it anymore, so I switched back to OpenOffice, and was relieved to do so. Still today it works flawlessly. All I can think of when I hear about LibreOffice, is will they ever fix their window resizing issue. It seems to me that when LO forked from OO, some bad decision were made that caused the suite to lose stability, and I am surprised that no one has mention that at all. All this talk of license or politics, well, what about functionality.
    Lets face it that MSOffice is the most widely used and when I had to edit a MS document for work LO always messed up the format and I had to use OO to fix it. What irritated me the most was the window resizing, when ever I resized a LO window part of the document would disappear or it would look like what windows does on an application hang. I was contently having to maximize and then minamize just so I could see the document again. I never had that issue with OO.

    • LO is a very young team, and is just getting going. It isn’t their fault that Sun mismanaged the community for so long.

      You might be right that LO has regressions. But at least they have a team. The team that built the OO you are using has been disbanded. I don’t think you really understand the situation yet!

  12. Keith–
    It’s obvious that many of your correspondents either haven’t read your article or don’t understand it. However, I want to comment on forking.

    First of all, the ability to fork is good. However, not all forks are good. Forking occurs when one set of parties in a development project develops serious objections to the direction the project is going. Once the fork occurs, usually the vast majority of the community choose one tine of the fork, and the other one withers.

    Example: Remember XFree86? The leadership of the project became very unresponsive to community requests, to the point that many community members were complaining, and new contributors felt unwelcome. It actually forked into several tines, but soon most of the community settled on the X.org fork, which has thrived, while XFree86 went nowhere after the fork.

    Sun was rather unresponsive to the OpenOffice.org community. Many potential contributors wouldn’t join the project because they would have been required to deed ownership of their code to Sun. But for whatever reason or reasons, the OpenOffice.org development community never grew to anything like the size of other open-source projects of similar scope. Then Oracle bought Sun, and many in the community simply didn’t trust Oracle to lead an open-source project properly. Sun was bad. Oracle was intolerable. The result was the LibreOffice fork.

    LibreOffice appears to be thriving, while there seems to be little happening in Apache OpenOffice.org, other than press releases. This is a sign of a good fork. As some have commented, There is some instability in recent releases, but I also see the RIGHT THING ™ where I didn’t see it before. (E.g., when you click on the change-the-font-size drop-down list, the current font size is now in the center of the list rather than at the top as before.) The increased pace of improvement is a major sign of the successful tine of the fork.

    The Apache OpenOffice.org effort must be considered a fork of LibreOffice, even though it has its predecessor’s name. As you have indicated, the original OpenOffice.org project is dead. (The project is dead, but the Website lingers on…) So this isn’t the original, this is a fork. It’s a bad fork: it’s bad because there are no significant complaints about the direction of the LibreOffice effort. And, I believe, with you, that this fork is wasting resources, and it is dead. It is dead because (all complaints about which license is more desirable aside) there is no likelihood that developers will abandon LibreOffice for Apache OpenOffice.org.

    Finally, a word about IBM (and other corporations related to open source development): IBM does not have friends. It has interests. When its interests align with the open source community, we will perceive IBM as “good.” When its interests do not align with the open source community, it will do things we consider “bad.” Remember that IBM, or any corporation, is legally required to do what is in the interest of its shareholders. Govern your relationship with the beast accordingly.


    • Great analysis! You summarized it clearly.

      I would just say that some people from IBM are good (helpful to Linux), and some are bad. This project could turn out badly for them! I don’t think IBM has interests in conflict with those of LibreOffice. I think the problem here is they didn’t understand the downsides of their fork.

      I’d also say that with IBM’s money, this could drag on for quite a while especially as are always new naive people out there who see the OpenOffice brand and the Apache name. In a situation of volunteers, if enough people people leave, the fork dies. But with their handful of for-hire developers, they can demonstrate “healthy” progress. And their illusion of progress can bring in more naive people.

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