Even if you’re one of the brave few who tries to make it through the world without a copy of Microsoft Office, chances are you can’t live without a decent word processor and spreadsheet program. For those who want something free and are wary of cloud-based solutions like Google Apps, one free, there’s a decent chance you’ve considered OpenOffice.org, a popular open source productivity suite that offers a lot for very little ($0).
But OpenOffice.org’s future is being called into question. That’s because OpenOffice.org in its current form had much of its development funded by Sun Microsystems, which agreed to be acquired by Oracle in 2009.
One of the reasons that antitrust regulators scrutinized the deal was concern over the impact that acquisition would have on MySQL, the popular open source RDBMS developed by MySQL AB, a company owned by Sun. Oracle, of course, is known for its expensive enterprise RDBMS offerings and some speculated that it would have no incentive to treat MySQL lovingly.
While Oracle hasn’t (yet?) attempted to kill off MySQL, Larry Ellison’s software giant has been going after open source recently, and some believe that OpenOffice.org could be on the chopping block. Oracle has reportedly decided to axe its support for OpenSolaris, and as Katherine Noyes of PC World points out, OpenOffice.org has far less protection than MySQL and even OpenSolaris.
But can OpenOffice.org survive if Oracle cuts support off? It has several things going for it. Specifically, it’s pretty popular, and apparently 450,000 individuals have already contributed to its development. So there’s hope that OpenOffice.org would be able to survive and thrive without Oracle’s backing. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to predict what OpenOffice.org’s future might look like without the kind of strong corporate backer that helped make it what it is today.
From this perspective, the specter that a prominent open source project like OpenOffice.org could face rough seas ahead as a result of an acquisition highlights a risk that is often overlooked when dealing with open source products: even though the products are open source and can technically survive without the perpetual support of a corporate benefactor, the loss of the corporate benefactor’s support has the potential to strike a blow to both the project and users.
In effect, this is a hidden cost of using open source, and while this certainly doesn’t mean that open source isn’t attractive — in many cases it’s still very attractive — it’s something that should be considered when picking a product.
Photo credit: pegwinn via Flickr.