IBM, Sun (and OpenOffice!) Say “No Way” to VNUnet Control Story

An article in seems to say that there's a rift between Sun and IBM at, and that Sun is fighting to hang on to the code. I asked Bob Sutor and Simon Phipps, and they both say, "no way."

Paul Harvey fans will enjoy reading the “rest of the story” epilogue at the end of this piece, which I added around 3:50 PM EST

I read a story by Tom Sanders at yesterday called Sun urged to give up OpenOffice control that just sounded “wrong,” or at least overblown. The gist of the story is that Project Leader Louis Suarez-Potts wants Sun to contribute the copyright in the open source version of ODF to a foundation to be created for the purpose of owning the rights, and that Sun and IBM aren’t getting along. I’ve gone direct to IBM and Sun to find out whether the story has it right, and they both say “no.”

First though, let’s look at what it says at The article quotes Suarez-Potts as follows:

In an ideal world open source should not be dependent on the capriciousness of any one corporation. A foundation does not isolate a project from any one corporation, it provides some distance. But the reality is that it requires Sun to give up the intellectual property to a foundation. That’s a fairly large obstacle.

Reservations of intellectual property rights are quite frequent in all sorts of open standards and open source situations, ranging from Sun’s retaining control of Java to the continuing ownership of patents by Sun and Microsoft in ODF and the XML Reference Schema, respectively, but supported by their statements that they would not assert those patents against implementations of ODF and the XML Reference Schema (again, of course, respectively). In an ideal open standards/open source world, of course, all IPR would be public domain, but we’re a long way from being there yet

As a result, the question then becomes (at least from this pragmatic perspective), “Do we have a problem here or not?”

According to the article, there is a problem, which is summarized as follows:

Suarez-Potts said that OpenOffice is currently suffering from the corporate politics between Sun and IBM, which is causing IBM to refrain from contributing to the project. An IBM contribution could further speed up development and provide OpenOffice with additional features that increase the software’s appeal�. would be interested in several of the adjustments that IBM has made to the application [for use in its own software that supports ODF], according to Suarez-Potts.

Big Blue has tackled some long standing issues by increasing performance, reducing the size of the code base and increasing its ease of use for corporate users. “The code that IBM has created seems pretty cool,” said Suarez-Potts.

The implication is that IBM is holding back because of Sun’s ownership of the code, and the article goes on to recount an email exchange with Bob Sutor as follows:

Sutor… told in an email that the company is open to discussing the OpenOffice situation. “If OpenOffice did become independent we would be interested in talking to Sun about it, but it’s not holding us back in any way,” he wrote.

Sutor added that IBM supports the Open Document Format (ODF) in several of its products. OpenOffice uses the same format, which ensures that an ODF document can be opened and edited in any ODF-supporting application.

The article states that Sun had not responded to requests for comment, but also that:

Suarez-Potts stressed that he is not currently pushing Sun to relinquish control, and that he would pursue the matter only if it has a clear advantage such as code contributions from IBM. “If IBM expresses strong interest in the idea, and we can maintain the costs, then we should pursue it,” he said.

I found this rather unsatisfying. Suarez-Potts says that he’d like a foundation to own the code, but, hey, it’s really OK as it is, but, of course, if IBM were to push for it, then maybe this is something that should happen here.

It all sounded like a rather incomplete effort to cobble together assorted bits of information to make a story, so I first got in touch with IBM Vice President of standards and Open Source Bob Sutor to find out what, if anything, he had meant to imply with his email. Here’s his response:

The VNUnet reporter sent me an email “out of the blue” asking for my opinion. With a metaphorical “shrug of my shoulders” I responded as I did. To be more clear, and on the record, IBM and Sun are working together happily and effectively on the OpenDocument Format. I think we’ve made a terrific amount of progress in the last year and that’s because of the broad cooperation by the community. I’m not sure why we were dragged into the referenced story, but it was certainly nothing we initiated.

So that was interesting. Next I contacted Simon Phipps, Sun’s Chief Open Source Officer, and here’s what he had to say:

* Sun is pleased to be able to support the community in many ways, such as by donating the work of a significant number of developers, by paying for the hosting of the web site and downloads and by supporting the administrative staffing.
* While the subject of a “Foundation” has been raised, the fact is that Sun has already “let go” of by purchasing StarDivision in 1999 and releasing the source code to StarOffice as Free/open source software under the LGPL, making the source code available to any developer.
* Right now the highest priorities are revamping the procedures and systems used by the developers, and that is in progress.

I’ve done some digging around, and what Simon says is right. It looks like something like 80% of the developers work for Sun (and are paid by it), and most of the rest work for Novell. Presumably, at least 80% of the people actually doing the work for aren’t passionate about having a foundation own most of the copyrights in the code which is, after all, open source anyway.

So the long and short of it is that it doesn’t look like there’s much “there” there in this article. After all, neither IBM nor Sun is looking for their respective ODF implementations to be significant revenue generators (and they aren’t – I wonder whether StarOffice revenues would even cover Sun’s costs of supporting Instead, it’s central to their strategy to have many applications that support ODF. Remember – it’s a good thing, and not a bad thing, for there to be many different implementations â�“ both proprietary and open source â�“ so long as they all support ODF. That’s one of the big reasons why ODF matters â�“ to have multiple choices (and not just one â�“ Office), each with its own independently valuable features.

It’s also fair to remember that when Linus Torvalds set out to write Linux, that’s what he did â�“ he set out to write it, not to ask that the then-owner of Unix donate it to him. In this case, is a lot better off than Linus was, even if it doesn’t have 100% ownership of the code â�“ and it is also a lot farther along than Linus was by the same point in time.

All of which isn’t to say that if I was heavily involved in the project that, given my druthers, I wouldn’t prefer to have the code in a foundation as well. But I think for now that’s a noise level issue. There are a lot of big issues that need to be addressed right rather than looking for little issues to make big.

Epilogue: Not long after posting this, I received the following email from none other than Louis Suarez-Potts, who kindly gave me permission to blog on it:

Tom Sanders’ headline, “Sun urged to give up OpenOffice control” (8 Feb. 2006; ) is wrong. At no point have I urged in my or’s behalf for Sun to give up control of (Even assuming it *has* control: I have long argued it doesn’t. It simply holds copyright to the source and has the most developers working on it.)

I have to agree with you about the lack of a “there,” there. My point in the interview was that would be happy to accept IBM’s work on; from what I have learned, this work is independent of the OpenDocument Format, which Sun and IBM are indeed collaborating on. A foundation would arguably provide the space for contributions not only from IBM but others. But it is clearly not a compelling idea to Sun or to IBM.

There are fires now but this is not one of them. It’s just smoke.

I think that it’s fair to say on this story, “enough said.”


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[To browse all prior blog entries on this story, click here]


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