When I hear the word “fork”, I reach for my gun. OK. Maybe it is not that bad. But in the open source world, “fork” is a loaded term. It can, of course, be an expression of a basic open source freedom. But it can also represent “fighting words”. It is like the way we use the term “regime” for a government we don’t like, or “cult” for a religion we disapprove of. Calling something a “fork” is rarely intended as a compliment.
So I’ll avoid the term “fork” for the remainder of this post and instead talk about the legacy of one notable open source project, OpenOffice.org, which has over the last decade spawned numerous derivative products, some open source, some proprietary, some which fully coordinate with the main project, others which have diverged, some which have prospered and endured for many years, others which did not, some which tried to offer more than OpenOffice, and others which attempted, intentionally, to offer less, some which changed the core code and other which simply added extensions.
If one just read the headlines over the past month one would get the mistaken notion that LibreOffice was the first attempt to take the OpenOffice.org open source code and make a different product from it, or even a separate open source project. This is far from true. There have been many spin-off products/projects, including:
- StarOffice (with a history that goes back even further, pre-Sun, to StarDivision)
- Portable OpenOffice
and, of course, LibreOffice. I’ve tracked down some dates of various releases of these projects and placed them on a time line above. You can click to see a larger version.
So before we ring the death knell for OpenOffice, let’s recognized the potency of this code base, in terms of its ability to spawn new projects. LibreOffice is the latest, but likely not the last example we will see. This is a market where “one size fits all” does not ring true. I’d expect to see different variations on these editors, just as there are different kinds of users, and different markets which use these kinds of tools. Whether you call it a “distribution” or a “fork”, I really don’t care. But I do believe that the only kind of open source project that does not spawn off additional projects like this is a dead project.