OSCON Pt. 3.2: OpenOffice.Org's 'Meaningless' Community Manager - InformationWeek

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7/24/2008
05:35 PM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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OSCON Pt. 3.2: OpenOffice.Org's 'Meaningless' Community Manager

Right after my chat with Zack of MySQL, I sat down with Louis Suarez-Potts, the community manager for OpenOffice.org -- a project that's probably every bit as important to Sun as MySQL, if not more so. Our conversation rambled a bit (he's a Philip K. Dick fan, same as me), but I was able to touch on the most important things on my mind -- and the first thing I learned was that Louis's job description is, in his words, "m

Right after my chat with Zack of MySQL, I sat down with Louis Suarez-Potts, the community manager for OpenOffice.org -- a project that's probably every bit as important to Sun as MySQL, if not more so. Our conversation rambled a bit (he's a Philip K. Dick fan, same as me), but I was able to touch on the most important things on my mind -- and the first thing I learned was that Louis's job description is, in his words, "meaningless." Meaningless, but far from pointless!

"The reason I keep the title so 'meaningless'," he confessed, "is because about anything can fall into that bucket, so I can do what I want from a managerial perspective. I can look at the OpenOffice.org community scene and negotiate where I can expend my efforts best.It also means I do a hell of a lot more work than any sane person wants. I get about three hours of sleep at night."

Meaningless as his job title might be, there is ostensibly a fixed set of duties that go with it.

"What I mainly focus on is coordinate developing and communities of contributors of all sorts, throughout the world. The reason this is important is because much of the world is coming to understand the virtues of FOSS, but not in the way Americans typically understand (free as in free of charge). 'Free' means it gives them the freedom to do things on their own. That and working with education -- OSS developers don't come out of nowhere. You have to engage universities, schools, and so on to foster open source.  We're taking a page out of the university system for sharing knowledge, where the goal isn't to commercialize it but to create it and make it widely available. Commercialization of knowledge as an industry came in later, where it became possible to commodify what you were doing. What we have now with open source and open content is a commons from which you can extract one-off products or create commodities and make a profit, but at the end of the day still have a commons that others can draw on."

One thing I come back to often -- and something that was in my purview behind Sun's acquisition of MySQL -- is that open source companies are not about a program but a team or community of minds.

"Software does not come out of a factory," Louis said. "The living intellectual property is what's most important." (This was his term for the minds behind the code, and it's the most succinct description I've heard so far.)

I asked about the difference between developers and contributors: "The latter includes people who do translations, documentation, and resources. They're just as important. It's also people who want to come in and help; I don't have a compelling argument to close the door in their face."

I brought up the inevitable question that everyone seems to ask with OpenOffice: How do you see yourselves vis-a-vis Microsoft? His answer was, to coin a phrase, quite Torvaldsian.

"We don't. We find them irrelevant. Microsoft doesn't find us irrelevant, though, so there are going to be comparisons. My argument is that OpenOffice.org does what you want, not what Microsoft wants. I don't want Microsoft to set the pace for my work. Another key difference: I want the relationship between the user and the commodity to be fresher. That's not the case with a shrink-wrapped product, where the product you get is final, like it's the word of God; it's more like having a communal one-to-one relationship. Relating to a shrink-wrapped product is about dealing with an EULA; relating to open source is about relating to developers and contributors. Your voice has a better chance of being heard.

Ironically, one of the best examples he had for how proprietary software limits choices comes from the proprietary-software world itself. "Before 1992, we all used many word-processing programs, but mainly WordPerfect. It had functionality that Microsoft Word simply did not at the time. We depended on WordPerfect's code-reveal function; WordPerfect worked beautifully with DOS; and so on. But everyone was moving to Word, and WordPerfect couldn't read Word files properly. And then people forgot that Word had certain limitations at all; they got stuck in the Microsoft universe. They forgot that there was WordPerfect, with all of its features; the forgot about Xywrite [another old-time favorite of mine] or WordStar or what have you."

In other words, I said, the very idea of choice vanished.

"I have no problem with people who continue to use Microsoft Office; I have no problem with it at all. But I have a problem with any one program monopolizing the user's imagination; I have a problem with any one program being the only viable choice. This is why data formats are so important -- why OpenOffice.org uses ODF as the default, and so on.

"I just got back from Sweden last week. It's an incredibly wealthy country. No one cares about the cost of the software, but they care about the freedoms those programs allow or deny. They care about the community and don't want a 'shrunkwrap' existence. So I built on their community spirit [to bolster OO.o there]. This is about having a socially responsible software community, and to create a breadth of intelligent choices."

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