19 December 2000
Sun's Open Door
I begin this, my first column for OpenOffice.org, with a direct question: Can OpenOffice.org be called subversive? The question, of course, stems from Eric Raymond's famous assertion in The Cathedral & the Bazaar that "Linux is subversive." "Subversive," in that Linux, and by extension the open-source movement, has created a collaborative, global network of hackers, developers, and idealists whose software is proving to be better--and certainly more efficiently produced--than anything that has come before.
Sun's OpenOffice.org, however, differs from Linux, or for that matter, from open-source efforts such as Mozilla or Apple's Darwin, in the nature and character of the project's source code. And it is also much larger than Linux or Mozilla. For these reasons, it is seemingly hard to cast OpenOffice.org into the same role as Linux, which we can easily imagine as a kind of David fighting a lumbering Goliath. Bruce Perens, for instance, was initially quite skeptical of Sun's motives. But when he learned that Sun was releasing the nine million lines of source code for StarOffice[tm] under the GNU General Public License (Sun also uses the Sun Industry Standards Source License, or SISSL), Perens publicly retracted his objections. Sun, in short, is fully committed to the open-source movement. To answer the question I raised above then, Yes, OpenOffice.org can and should be thought of as subversive, at least in the sense that Eric Raymond meant.
But the hugeness and importance of the OpenOffice.org software permanently alters the nature of that subversion. In fact, OpenOffice.org's size and Sun's entry into the open-source movement marks a sea change in software development. It demonstrates that open source has come of age, and is now a plausible (if not yet automatic) option for very large software projects. And if we succeed, as I'm sure we will, it would go a great distance to forcing any sponsoring body to consider open source.
All the same, the move to open source is difficult for corporations to make. It's also fascinating to see in progress. In my next Editor's Column, I look at the problematic 613 build and trace the way the community addressed (and continues to address) those problems.