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Community Articles: Opinions, Interviews, Analyses

-Louis Suárez-Potts

25 March 2001

The International, II

Last week, I summarized the issues at hand in the debate over what has come to be called the "internationalization" of OpenOffice.org. In a nutshell, the advantage of "internationalizing" the site is that we might be able to bring in more developers. The appeal, that is, is practical, not nationalistic. Opponents to this view point out that success might be a form of failure, and rather than bringing people into the project who would contribute to developing the software, we might only end up "balkanizing" the project and ultimately stymie development.

The debate has been intense and productive. Numerous community members, from several countries and langugaes, have participated, chief among them Bill Roth, Guy Capra, Dietrich Schulten, Éric Savary, Michael S. Zick, and Adam "Goolie" Gould, who clarified the issues and coined the term for this debate. Each has proposed, often in great detai (see especially Mike Zick's comments), solutions to the problem of not only bringing in linguistically diverse people, but how to arrange communication among the various groups whether English, German, French or Korean, once they have joined the community. (You can read their interventions in the discuss list archives.)

For the fact of the matter is that OpenOffice.org is becoming more truly international. Or, perhaps I should write, we are commencing an experiment in which the international constituents of OpenOffice.org will be more fully recognized. For, as I observed last week, we already are extremely international, at least in the distribution of the community. But that internationalism seems to be merely an accident of geography, a sign of corporate reach, and an indication of the extent to which English, for good or ill, predominates in both technical and commercial communication.

That doesn't mean, however, that it is necessarily the preferred language of everyone, especially for more general discussions. It may very well be the case that quite a few nonnative English-language speakers feel disinclined to contribute their views simply because they must wrestle with a language that, for all its utility in permitting the flow of technical knowledge, is a beast to wrestle with when it comes to expressing less technical things. As a consequence, we may be unintentionally limiting the OpenOffice.org developer community to only those developers able and willing to communicate in English.

In doing so, we are not alone. Yes, there are significant exceptions (and they should provide the rule). Of these, Linux naturally stands out. The paradigmatic Open Source endeavor is by and large quite international in its projects, implementations, and user base. But Linux, unlike OpenOffice.org, is not corporate sponsored; we can't, as a result, easily use it as a model for the evolution of a corporate-sponsored Open Source project. Recently SourceForge has announced a greater emphasis on providing site navigation aids to non-Anglophone visitors. But SourceForge is a hosting company (similar to CollabNet), not a software project (such as OpenOffice.org or Linux). It makes sense that they would provide services to as disparate community as possible.

But, in the case of software projects, where coordination of effort is deemed important, outside of Linux there are precious few projects that do what we are seeking to accomplish (there may be more; I couldn't find any; but my research was spotty). Thus, for instance, the project to which we are often compared, Mozilla.org, is resolutely Anglophonic. Yes, its I18N newsgroup, which pertains to international issues (the "18" refers to the eighteen letters in-between the "I" and the "N"), contains non-English messages, some of which were wholly beyond my browser's capabilities to represent. But nowhere on the Mozilla.org site did I find anything in any language other than English. This doesn't mean that it doesn't exist; I just couldn’t find it, and it certainly suggests a strong Anglophone bias, regardless of their rather chaotically polyglot and spam-friendly (and seemingly entirely unmoderated) I18N newsgroup.

So our experiment is unique, at least for a corporate-sponsored Open Source project. It marks a milestone: We have achieved the point where there are enough people interested in the project to create a space for their activities. We are going to create a section of the site for a French component and an associated list, also in French. The full details are still being worked out (and the devil is in the details!), but the site will go live soon. This component will not be a full duplicate of the site; rather, it will contain elements of Guy Capra's French version of OpenOffice.org, and it will serve to encourage Francophone participation in the community.

To emphasize, this is an experiment; a first and careful step; but if it is successful, other languages will be included, and the most obvious of those is German. (French has only gotten the step up--if that is the right term--because Guy's site already exists, can be easily incorporated into the existing OpenOffice.org site, and because Guy pressed his case hard.) Success, in this instance, will be determined almost by a lack of failure (a lack, that is, of balkanization) and by the entry into the site of more users, regardless of whether they are Francophone or not. For the creation of the French components, as well as the response by Sun to the proposal, is surely a welcome sign that OpenOffice.org is a community effort.

But that effort will only remain a "community" effort--and not a chaotic mess--if the community stays focused. On a functional level, the places where important decisions--what Éric Savary called "the core work"--are effected will continue to operate under one language, English. And on a more abstract level, community members need to have a coherent sense of the goals of the project (and projects) they are working on. That is, a notion of what OpenOffice.org is about, what it is doing, and where it is going. To this latter end, I have proposed a new mission statement and have asked for commentary, but that is but a start. We also need an agreed-upon, up-to-date roadmap.

As always, please don't hesitate to send your comments to the discuss list or, if you really want, to me, Louis.

 

Previous articles

15 March 2001 The International

9 March 2001 Creating the New Open Source

1 March 2001 Interview: Sander Vesik

22 February 2001 Allchin's Demagoguery, by Bill Roth, guest contributor

15 February 2001 Interview with Wilfredo Sánchez

9 February 2001 Organizing Open Source

1 February 2001 Open Source and Its Culture

23 January 2001 Community Action

16 January 2001 Quo Vadis OpenOffice.org?

9 January 2001 The 613 build:  problems and opportunities

3 January 2001 Sun's open door

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