IBM Throws its Active Support behind (at last)

Updated 9/11/07:  I conducted an in-depth interview later on Monday with IBM's Doug Heintzman on why IBM decided to join at this time, and what it hopes to accomplish, which you can find here.


In what many will see as a long-overdue move, announced today that IBM will become an active supporter of, and contributor to, OpenOffice. That suite is the most widely used office productivity suite that implements the OpenDocument Format (ODF). It is also free, and based upon source code originally published as open source in 2000 by Sun Microsystems under the LPGL license. The project has been actively developing the code since 2003, largely with the economic support of Sun Microsystems, which sells a business-oriented, supported version of the same suite called StarOffice. OpenOffice-org reports that more than 100 million copies of OpenOffice have been downloaded.
According to a press release issued this morning by, the open source project that maintains OpenOffice (the full text is reproduced at the end of this blog entry as well), the nature of IBM's support and contributions will be as follows:
IBM will be making initial code contributions that it has been developing as part of its Lotus Notes product, including accessibility enhancements, and will be making ongoing contributions to the feature richness and code quality of Besides working with the community on the free productivity suite's software, IBM will also leverage technology in its products.

The question that many will be asking is this: What took so long? That's a query upon which many have speculated, but which no one has ever definitively answered. I'll return to it later, but first, here's more on the announcement itself, and why it's so significant.

An FAQ also appears at the site release, and provides more detail than the press release. The press release itself is given over mostly to statements by Sun, IBM, OpenOffice, and representatives of an array of open source players that are also OpenOffice contributors(Mark Shuttleworth, founder of the Ubuntu Linux distribution, Hu Caiyong, CEO of Beijing’s Redflag Chinese 2000 Software Co., Ltd., and Scott Crenshaw, Vice President of Enterprise Linux for Red Hat), in order to emphasize that is already more than simply a Sun-supported effort.
So far, the details released are sparse. According to the press release and the FAQ, IBM’s efforts will begin immediately, and will include (in addition to the Hanover code referred to above) the efforts of 35 dedicated programmers, located in China. That information is of interest because most of the dedicated programmers to date have been on the Sun payroll. The press release and the FAQ also refer to the iAccessibility2 project, which was transitioned to the Free Standards Group last year, and now continues to operate as one of a number of accessibility-related projects operated by the Linux Foundation, following the merger in February of FSG and OSDL.
Assuming that the press release signals a strong commitment on IBM’s part with further announcements to follow, the news is significant principally because the ability of ODF compliant software to meet end-user, and especially enterprise end-user, needs has arguably lagged the success of the ODF standard itself to achieve credibility in the marketplace. ODF has enjoyed a surprisingly robust run of successes, emerging first into broad notice with its adoption by Massachusetts in September of 2005, and continuing through its unanimous adoption by ISO/IEC JTC1. More recently, ODF received a boost on September 2, when OOXML failed to win adoption in the first round of consideration by the same committee.
In order to capitalize on this success, however, customers need products that can compete toe to toe with Microsoft Office, which has benefited from the concurrent efforts of hundreds, if not thousands, of programmers over many years of development. While the nascent ODF-compliant marketplace offers competition, innovation and variety, with multiple proprietary and open source alternatives, no single product offers the complete range of features, as well as the global support services network, of Office.
OpenOffice is clearly the farthest advanced in that regard, deriving from a code base whose development stretches back to the dawn of desktop computing (StarDivision, offered its first versions for use on the Z80, and later the Commodore 64). Sun acquired the software and trademarks in 1999 for $73,5 million, before contributing the source code to what became (Sun continued development of StarOffice in parallel with OpenOffice, utilizing the evolving OpenOffice code). It is also the most widely used in the marketplace, and benefits from the most credible support services, through Sun.   With OpenOffice available for free, and StarOffice at a very significant discount from Office, OpenOffice is clearly the most formidable ODF-compliant competitor to Office.
With IBM throwing its active support behind OpenOffice, that credibility can be greatly increased, assuming that deeds follow words. Presumably, others may be incentivized to add their efforts to support OpenOffice, as well, through bundling, contributed developers, and coordinated messaging. Google’s announcement in early August that it would bundle StarOffice 9 with its Google Pack free download – and Sun’s agreement to permit this to occur at no cost to the end-user – is an additional shot in the arm for OpenOffice (Google has been assisting since at least 2005). Together, they provide a surge of support that may rally others to the same flag.
That leaves only the question of why this announcement comes now, and why “now” was so long delayed.
On the “why now” front, perhaps the setback for OOXML in ISO/IEC JTC1 and the Google announcement have provided a bandwagon effect that, like the original Massachusetts announcement, provides the prospect for the type of greater rewards that help displace other considerations and historical impediments. Those impediments have been the subject of many blog entries in many places over the years, which I won’t bother to link to here (I refreshed my memory of them this morning, and there appears to be little benefit to doing so, given how heavily they lean on speculation rather than facts).
Update:  IBM confirmed my assumption about the impact of the OOXML setback later today, in a story at InfoWorld post referencing this blog entry:
[Doug] Heintzman [director of strategy for the Lotus division at IBM] acknowledged that the International Organization for Standardization’s (ISO’s) recent vote to reject Microsoft’s Open XML file format as a technology standard was one reason IBM decided to join the effort. “They are certainly related,” he said of the ISO vote and IBM’s decision to join “We think that it’s now time to make sure there is a public code base that implements this spec so we can attract a critical mass to build these new value propositions.”
Sun founded and offers its own commercial implementation of the suite, called StarOffice. The company, a long-time IBM competitor in the hardware and software markets, also has been the primary contributor to the code, one of the reasons IBM balked for so long before joining the group.
“[The community] has had some challenges in recruiting an awful lot of big names to support the activity, but [now] we think there are some that can provide an example to us all to provide a vibrant place to add value,” Heintzman said. “We hope that our voice at the table will help us evolve the community.”  [end update] 
The press release and the FAQ provide an interesting set of inferred insights to the past (the former, through the statements by Sun and IBM, the latter through the mutually agreed upon messaging). The Sun quote, besides welcoming IBM to the family, understandably takes credit for seven years of support for the OpenOffice project. The IBM quote looks forward to working with a community made up of multiple players, and to an increasing number of applications that support ODF.
A genuinely shrewd quote (a great rarity for press releases), though, comes from John McCreesh, the OpenOffice Marketing Project Lead. John’s quote reads as follows, and recognizes the market push that the strong support of an industry goliath like IBM can provide:
This is great news for the tens of millions of users of and the thousands of individual members of the project. We welcome IBM’s contributions to further enhancing the product. But equally important is IBM’s future commitment to package and distribute new works that leverage technology supporting the ISO ODF standard. ODF is a once in a generation opportunity for the IT industry to unify round a standard, and deliver lasting benefit to users of desktop technology.

Most significantly, though, John nails the ultimate answer to the question “why now” in his final sentence. Whatever the reasons may have been that have kept Sun and IBM from working together to support OpenOffice over the past four years, the reality is that a chance to break an industry monopoly that generates $15 billion in revenues a year comes only once in a generation – if it comes at all. This is no time for either vendor to let the differences of the past prevent them from seizing the historic opportunities of the future.

For further blog entries on ODF and OOXML, click here

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 IBM Joins Community
The community – responsible for the leading free software alternative to Microsoft Office – today welcomed IBM as a community member. IBM has announced immediate code contributions and ongoing engineering support to the community, and will leverage technology in its own products.
Edinburgh, UK — September 10, 2007 — The community today announced that IBM will be joining the community to collaborate on the development of software. IBM will be making initial code contributions that it has been developing as part of its Lotus Notes product, including accessibility enhancements, and will be making ongoing contributions to the feature richness and code quality of Besides working with the community on the free productivity suite’s software, IBM will also leverage technology in its products.
“This is great news for the tens of millions of users of and the thousands of individual members of the community”, said John McCreesh, Marketing Project Lead. “We welcome IBM’s contributions to further enhancing the product. But equally important is IBM’s future commitment to package and distribute new works that leverage technology supporting the ISO OpenDocument Format standard. ODF is a once in a generation opportunity for the IT industry to unify round a standard, and deliver lasting benefit to all users of desktop technology.”
“In the seven years since Sun founded the project, has fueled and filled the need for document data and productivity tools that are open and free. Open source software and ODF are having a profound impact around the world, with numerous communities and organizations coming together to support these initiatives and governments, and corporations and schools standardizing on the software. We look forward to working with IBM and the other members of to ensure that this momentum continues. We invite others to join us in the community and participate in building the future as and ODF continue to gain popularity across the planet,” said Rich Green, Executive Vice President, Software at Sun Microsystems, Inc.
“IBM is very pleased to be joining the community. We are very optimistic that IBM’s contribution of technology and engineering resources will provide tangible benefits to the community membership and to users of technology around the world,” said Mike Rhodin, General Manager of IBM’s Lotus division. “We’re particularly pleased to be teaming with the community to accelerate the rate of innovation in the office productivity marketplace. We believe that this relationship will improve our ability to deliver innovative value to users of IBM products and services. We also believe that the collaboration will lead to an even broader range of ODF-supporting applications (ISO 26300) and solutions that draw from the technology.”
Others involved in the project or distributing the code were equally enthusiastic about IBM’s step.
Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Ubuntu, a leading Linux distribution, said: “We are excited about IBM joining Sun and other contributors to the community in pushing development of and the OpenDocument Format. We are firmly committed to help set, drive and promote open standards like the ODF worldwide to free all users from any dependency on single vendors and proprietary software. The community is showing that it is possible for large, competing companies to collaborate and deliver extraordinary value to all of their users.” is distributed with Ubuntu.
And Hu Caiyong, CEO of Beijing’s Redflag Chinese 2000 Software Co., Ltd., whose company contributes significant resources to, stated: “We acclaim IBM as a welcome contributor to the community! It’s great to have such a strong partner on our side, one which, with its extraordinary technical expertise and marketing power, will help drive this project so important to free software and open standards. We are looking forward to a truly productive partnership and harmonious collaboration with IBM, Sun and other contributors on”
Scott Crenshaw, Red Hat’s Vice President of Enterprise Linux, agreed: “IBM continues to show their commitment to the proliferation of open-source software and we applaud them on joining the community. We look forward to continuing our strong relationship with IBM as we work toward a common goal of bringing value to our customers and fostering the adoption of open standards and ODF.”® is the leading open-source productivity suite. It includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing, database, and other modules; it uses the ODF as its native file format as well as fully supporting other common file formats (including Microsoft Office). The software runs on all major platforms, including Microsoft Windows (including Vista), GNU/Linux, Solaris, and Mac OS X, and is available in over 100 languages. is fully interoperable with other popular suites and may be used free of charge for any purpose, private or commercial; the license is LGPL.
Since the project’s creation by Sun Microsystems in 2000, nearly 100 million have downloaded the product; thousands contribute to it. As an international team of volunteer and sponsored contributors, the community has created what is widely regarded as the most important open source project in the world today. The community acknowledges generous sponsorship from a number of companies, including Sun Microsystems, the founder and primary contributor.

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IBM Joins Community to develop and promote FAQ
What is being announced?
That IBM has joined the community and will collaborate on developing and promoting technology. It will contribute code to the community it has been working on as part of its Lotus Notes product, including accessibility enhancements.
When will this be effective?
What took IBM so long?
IBM has always supported, just on a more informal basis. IBM has seen that the marketplace is beginning to demand ODF in a big way. Approximately 100 million people use the product, and governments everywhere are turning to it. A point has been reached in the popularity of both ODF and where IBM and believe more can be accomplished by collaborating.
Who benefits?’s users and contributors. They speak more than 100 languages, use the product daily on every major platform, including Windows, Linux, Solaris, Mac OS X, and they include government, enterprise, small business, education and individual consumers living around the world. The global open-source community of developers and contributors also benefits, as the model of intermural collaboration and free distribution is once again proven.
Is IBM paying to participate? Or are is paying IBM? If so, how much?
No payments are required to participate in an open-source project. IBM has received no payment. This is an announcement of a longterm commitment.
Is IBM implying that is in dire need of technical enhancements?
Not at all. is a reliable, full-featured suite; it’s popular for good reason. But technology is changing, and the community believes that it makes sense to work with IBM and gain from its expertise.
Can you quantify the resources IBM is bringing to bear? For example, how many programmers? Where are they located?
IBM has about 35 programmers in China who will be dedicated to the project.
What is IBM contractually bound to provide
IBM has volunteered to contribute enhancements over several years that pertain to the usability, quality, and accessibility.
What kind of accessibility technology is IBM contributing?
IBM developed something called iAccessible2 (code-named Project Missouri in the U.S.) that was announced earlier this year. In a stroke of irony, an interface originally designed to make Windows more friendly to those with disabilities, has been used, in part, to make ODF more accessible to those with disabilities. This has made ODF more attractive to governments, which often require that the technology they purchase be accessible to all of its users, including the disabled.
iAccessible 2 is an interface that tells assistive technologies — such as screen readers used by the blind — what is transpiring on browser and software screens, including ODF-based applications. Blind users will now be able to more easily discern text embedded in charts, menus, pictures, pop-ups, and hyperlinks.
The code was contributed to the Free Standards Group, while Oracle, Sun, and SAP have committed to help further develop the spec. Mozilla is committed to incorporating it into its Firefox browser, and screen readers vendors GW Micro and Freedom Scientific will also use it in their own products. IBM will also use it in the productivity editors of its Lotus Notes product, which supports ODF.
IBM’s code is believed to be the first consistent way for the industry to easily and inexpensively help those with disabilities take advantage of advanced features found in today’s browsers and software programs. Accommodations for accessibility have now been architected directly into the core ODF specification, as well. Those impressed with Project Missouri include the American Association of People with Disabilities, American Foundation for the Blind, National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science.
Does IBM have a different level of membership than other corporate stakeholders in the project?
Novell and Corel have versions of that support OOXML. Why don’t you have similar support?

Their versions have converters, which, at this point, don’t yet do a flawless job translating between ODF and OOXML. In addition, IBM’s customers haven’t asked for this capability yet. ODF use dwarfs the use of OOXML.

Comments (5)

  1. Just a related note, anybody thinking that only few Linux zealots are making a big noise about OOXML by complaining few editorial omissions in the "superb" OOXML specs I suggest people to take a look at one example of comments about the spec: In the zip file you’ll find tens of Word (!) documents that contain an incredible long list of comments. They undeniably underline the fact that the spec was never properly reviewed, more likely it was constructed in a hurry and knowingly omitted some key definitions. If you don’t agree, just please read the docs again, the amount of comments is just breathtaking!

  2. It’s noticeable that you can get Sun StarOffice at no charge as part of the ‘Google Pack’ .

    Also, the discount that schools and universities get for Microsoft Office brings its price below the list price of Sun StarOffice. However, that version of Microsoft Office may not be used for any commercial purpose whatsoever. There is no such restriction on Sun StarOffice.

    I believe IBM was slow at thowing its weight behind as a consequence of the veiled threats implied by Microsoft’s $2B settlement with SUN; Microsoft covenanted not to sue in respect of prior deployments of, but implicitly got everyone worried about future deployments. You’d be concerned about the potential loss of such a revenue stream, too.

    So, the commercial ‘shenanigans’ go on.

    • I am pretty sure it has nothing to do with threats. IBM took their snapshot under SISSL and didn’t up to now want to take the LGPL. This may have been the intention all along, just a tactical timing issue letting them develop Notes 8 quietly with the integrated editors then join the community after the initial release. IBM committed to the code when they announced the editors (probably at Lotusphere ’05, perhaps before that even)

  3. Does anyone else see some interesting correlations here ?

    1. Mr. McNealy advocates in China for a merger of UOF and ODF after a recent Bill Gates trip to China where Bill tries to get China to dump UOF in favor of OOXML – (well actually Office 2007 because we all know that Office 2007 != OOXML).

    2. China indicates that it may be possible to merge ODF & UOF or ‘unify’ the two standards but that UOF and OOXML are too far apart.

    3. OOXML fails the inital fast-track vote in ISO despite their shenanigans.

    4. IBM joins the community and provides 35 full-time developers in …wait for it…  China !

    5. Any bets on whether these developers have any experience with the Chinese office specification (UOF) ?  Any bets on whether they will be working (at least somewhat) to help produce modifications to Open Office that will support both the UOF & ODF specs in a single application – changes that will enhance the Open Office attraction in China ?

    6. I smell future standards work to unify UOF & ODF with OOXML being left odd-man-out (assuming OOXML is not dropped due to the extent of the changes required to Office 2007 to make it satisfactory to ISO).  Assuming OOXML is modified to be satisfactory to ISO, does it matter that there will likely never be a compliant implementation ?  Is there a process to dump obsolete / abandoned standards – especially where the obsolete/abandoned standard duplicates an active one so closely as OOXML duplicates ODF ?

  4. The Notes 8 productivity editors were derived from the OOo 1.x codebase, taken from a time where there was a dual LGPL/SISSL license. IBM took advantage of the SISSL terms rather than the LGPL and didn’t have to contribute back their changes. The Notes 8 install actually includes soffice.exe and with a bit of messing with the registry it is possible to turn on the full UNO API to access the editors programatically.
    I am really pleased that IBM have decided to comply with the LGPL (I don’t mean to imply they were contravening anything – they were using SISSL) and contribute back their changes and get a fresh input of code into Notes. IBM understand the value of an open development process, clearly they have the resources to continue with a closed process but they recognise that open development leads to better products. The Notes 8 productivity editors are now assured of accelerated improvement and the development community (not just IBM) working on Notes related products will be able to join with the community in making this all work better for everyone. Early this year I co-presented a session at the Lotusphere conference to several hundred independent developers, IBMers and a couple of spies from Microsoft all about the API and how to use it from Notes. At the end we showed a very early build of Notes 8 running the same OOo code we had been showing against the productivity editors.
    I am very pleased to see this announcement, it assures a strong future for Notes and the Productivity editors. Notes users (118,000,000 or so of them) don’t need to buy Microsoft Office Licenses (nobody needs to actually, but Notes users will derive special benefit from not using MS) and they can interoperate with anyone by exchanging documents in the international standard format ODF.

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