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Editor's Column

23 January 2001

-Louis Suarez-Potts

Community Action

A week ago, I had promised that I would embark this week on an examination of other open-source projects, beginning with Apple's Darwin project (the core of Mac OS X). But the events of the last week have forced me to postpone that examination.

No, I do not refer to George Bush's inauguration or to the demonstrations protesting that event. Rather, I refer to what is closer to home: The very lively discussions over the future functionality of OpenOffice.org that have animated the project's "discuss" mailing list. In particular, I mean the thread "Say it isn't so," in which an enormous number of respondents, both technically oriented and not, have weighed in with their arguments regarding OpenOffice.org's incorporation of e-mail and calendering functionality.

The issue is of course important; however, I want in this column to focus less on the good or bad of including such functionality than on the process by which the OpenOffice.org community articulates its desires and interests (the thread continues). That process, first, is definitively civil. There are no flames; only a rational (and passionate) discussion of the pros and cons. Last week, I suggested that an open-source community exists in dialectic relation with the governing body (or whatever body articulates the rules and road maps). But the nature of a dialectic is that it is not static: power shifts incessantly, the goals of any open-source community never purely rest with the governing body but can always be contested by an active community.

However, the OpenOffice.org community is not quite in the same situation as, say, Mozilla.org, on which I briefly touched last week. Rather, as Brian Behlendorf (co-founder of Apache) wrote in response to a message, "there are no 'OpenOffice[.org] Foundation board members' yet; Sun (in conjunction with others) is still working to determine the best way to create a legal entity around OpenOffice.org that answers to the community." This is not to say that there is no guidance or planning. There is: Sun and CollabNet (who hosts the site) continue to devote an extraordinary amount of time and energy to guiding the community. It is just that there is so far no formal governing body.

Certainly, such a governing body will be necessary, if one of its functions is to ensure the community holds to agreed-upon goals. But, from the evidence, the OpenOffice.org community has been working in a way that demonstrates that it is perfectly able to establish priorities and values on its own.

For what the "Say it isn't so" thread reveals is a community that is powerfully engaged; not just working in passive isolation on abstruse code but very concerned with and interested in how the user will actually benefit from what they are doing. And it also shows that the developers are by no means blind to the commercial and real-world elements of the projects they work on. In fact, an acute recognition of the marketability of the software animates the discussion and complements the equal recognition that the project will only succeed if people actually use the products derived from OpenOffice.org.

I hesitate to relate the thread messages in full. Not only are there many, but each is an intervention in a debate and was not written with the consciousness that it might be featured here. However, for those interested, the URL for the current "discuss" mail list is: //www-discuss/current/.

 

Previous columns

3 January 2001 Sun's open door

9 January 2001 The 613 build:  problems and opportunities

16 January 2001 Quo Vadis OpenOffice.org?

E-mail: louis at collab.net*

*By spelling out the mail address, I'm hoping to defeat spam crawlers.

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