Should Oracle be blamed for OpenOffice.org pullout?

Sun dropped the OpenOffice.org ball, Oracle failed to pick it up

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Is Oracle getting a bad rap for admitting defeat with OpenOffice.org already? Matthew Aslett seems to think so. While Aslett is right that Sun had the ball much longer, Oracle shouldn't be held blameless either.

In case you missed it, Oracle has announced that it "intends to move OpenOffice.org to a purely community-based open source project" and drop the commercial offering. Not surprisingly, Oracle has gotten a bit of pushback on its announcement.

Aslett says it's perfectly reasonable for Oracle to ditch OpenOffice.org, "Why should it be any other way? Oracle is under no obligation to continue any of Sun’s products, open or closed, unless they are seen to be delivering value to the company. It is certainly not obligated to clear up the mess left by Sun’s mishandling of the various open source projects it created..."

Yes and no. If you take the purely pragmatic, bottom-line approach, then Aslett has a point. Sort of. Sun had the OpenOffice.org ball for years and its success with OpenOffice.org as a commercial venture was less than stellar. Sun also received quite a lot of criticism for its handling of OpenOffice.org as a community project as well. Oracle can't be blamed for Sun's mistakes up to the point that it made the acquisition.

But Oracle knew what it was getting into with Sun. It made the choice to acquire the company and make noises about its big plans for OpenOffice.org. Oracle didn't come out and say "hey, OpenOffice.org is a mess — here's what we'll do to fix it." Nor did Oracle say "hey, Sun botched this and we're just going to give it back to the community."

No — Oracle made some vague, positive-sounding pronouncements when it took the keys to the remains of Sun, and then set about doing... very damn little. Instead of trying to turn the boat around and make a commercial success out of OpenOffice.org, Oracle did... what? It produced a few token releases with no major new features or improvements. It did nothing to improve OO.org's clunky interface. It did nothing to promote OpenOffice.org or its commercial variant. Oracle talked a good game in the beginning, and then simply didn't execute. That's why Oracle is getting blowback now, and that should be obvious to Aslett and Oracle. They raised expectations and then utterly failed to deliver.

On the community side it was worse than Sun. Oracle imposed a wall of silence. If Oracle's plan was to stifle community and inspire a fork — mission accomplished! But if Oracle was genuinely trying to improve contribution to OpenOffice.org, then it certainly went about it the wrong way.

You can almost forgive Oracle for dropping the community ball — the company has demonstrated time and again it doesn't play well with community. But Oracle does know how to make money and how to push products to success — but it didn't do that either. If Oracle had even the slightest intention to try to make its office suite a commercial success, it never actually took any reasonable steps to do so.

It seems odd that Oracle didn't really make much of an effort to at least promote its proprietary version of OpenOffice.org — if for no other reason than to keep poking Microsoft with a sharp stick. Given that Microsoft Office is such a cash cow for one of its main competitors, you'd have thought that Oracle might invest heavily in OpenOffice.org just to try to take some market share from Microsoft. Alas, that was not to be — Oracle basically sat on its hands for a little over a year and then lobbed a nearly information-free press release over the wall on a Friday.

The truth seems to be that Oracle just wanted a few choice bits of Sun when it made the acquisition. That's fine — except that when Oracle was trying to look good for regulators, it suggested that it was going to "create a compelling desktop integration bridge for our enterprise customers and offer consumers another choice on the desktop." That was in 2009. Oracle had a year to make plans for OpenOffice.org before it actually was granted the approval to make the purchase, which was more than adequate time to create a plan for the suite. It had a year after that to execute — and utterly failed to do so.

I'd really like to know what Oracle has in mind about OpenOffice.org, but it hasn't responded yet to my request for comments. If I do hear from Oracle I'll be sure to follow up with their plans for "moving OpenOffice.org to a community-based project."

Depending on how Oracle actually handles the community transition, the irony is that Oracle could have been lauded a year ago for handing OpenOffice.org over in full to the community. Now it's just an admission of failure, since real energy for open office suite development has moved over to The Document Foundation and LibreOffice. Of course Oracle will now receive a big raspberry over its announcement. It's too little, too late and it didn't have to be that way.

In the meantime, I think it's perfectly fair to hold Oracle's feet to the fire with regards to OpenOffice.org. The idea that Oracle should get a pass in abandoning OO.org because MySQL and Linux are already well-established players is a bit silly. This totally ignores the fact that Oracle is a massive company that has the resources to pursue improving and popularizing OpenOffice.org if it so chooses. It's not like Oracle made a massive effort that fell flat — the company simply didn't try. Oracle deserves the grief that it's getting, which doesn't take away one iota from the fact that Sun bungled as well.

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