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[ossig] [FOSS-PDI] Analysis: Limitations of OpenOffice.Org, by Andrew Brown,The Guardian

If this suite's a success, why is it so buggy?


By Andrew Brown

Of all the myths that have grown up around open source software,
perhaps the most pervasive is Eric Raymond's aphorism that "Many eyes
make bugs shallow", suggesting that if lots of people can view a
program's source code, they will find and fix its errors more quickly
than commercial products whose code is jealously guarded. The only
problem with this is that it's not true - certainly not in one of the
flagship projects of open source, OpenOffice.

This project is most often quoted as the threat to Microsoft's
cash-generating Office suite. The free suite comprises a word
processor, spreadsheet and presentation program; and graphics,
equation editor and database programs if you want.

OpenOffice is the only free and open source product competitive with
Office, able to read and write Microsoft format documents almost
flawlessly. For Linux desktop users, it is the only way to
communicate in the universe of business. But it also vividly
demonstrates the limitations of open source as a way of producing
software, and its futility as an ideology.

I like OpenOffice. I used it long before it was usable, out of a
mixture of perversity, stinginess, and vague anti-Microsoft
sentiment. When I started writing books, I had Microsoft Word 97,
which could not print a 60,000-word manuscript without crashing. I
have written numerous macros (which automate less obvious, or
screamingly obvious, tasks), including the word count for version 1.
I have done quality assurance work, submitting reports on bugs and
testing those reported by others. So I know something about the open
source "community" and the enormous gap between myth and reality.

Improbable assumptions

The reality is that any computer user probably depends on open source
programs every time they look up anything on the net. But they don't
know that, and they don't have to.

The myth of open source rests on two improbable assumptions. The
first is that a significant proportion of users can fix bugs. That is
true at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where the concept
of open source was first formalised in the 1980s by Richard Stallman
and others, and it is true in some of the geekier corners of the
internet. But on programs intended for use by the non-programming
public, it's a very different story.

This is important because of the second crucial false assumption:
that even if not all users can fix a bug, they can help find them.
They can't. Most users just think: "The computer isn't doing what I

Big commercial software companies know this well. When developing
products for the public, they spend a lot of money on usability
testing to find out what users expect from software, and how to meet
those expectations. Companies lose from user dissatisfaction in a way
open source software doesn't, and so have an incentive to avoid
errors in the first place: the number of calls to a support desk
grows exponentially with the number of bugs and users. Where's the
support desk for OpenOffice?

Despite the open source rhetoric, OpenOffice actually started as a
commercial product - StarOffice, from Germany's StarDivision - before
being bought in October 1999 by Sun Microsystems. Almost all the work
on it is now done by about 100 full-time Sun programmers. That is a
tiny fraction of the armies Microsoft or Google can deploy to solve a

But what about the innumerable volunteers who can download the code
and fix what they like? They take one look at the effort involved and
run. OpenOffice is an extremely complex mountain of source code. As
far as I know, in the five years it has been available as open
source, not one contribution to the program has come from amateurs.
The outsiders who have provided input have been full-time
professionals employed by Linux companies to help make the software

There has been a lot of volunteer effort, but it has gone into
support. Without the efforts of French and Italian volunteers, it
would be more or less impossible for anyone to write macros. Some
volunteer energy goes into localisation efforts: the suite is
available in practically every language, and four or five people put
in a real effort to help puzzled users on the internet, but the
overwhelming energy seems to go into filling the blogosphere with
remarks about the merits of open source software and getting outraged
about inconvenient facts.

Kindergarten noise

For example, just before version 2 was released, a Ziff-Davis blog
(blogs.zdnet.com/Ou/?p=120) pointed out that OpenOffice is bigger,
less efficient, and much slower than MS Office (tinyurl.com/4evmt).
Large spreadsheets take more than 100 times as long to load. Some of
this is a result of inefficient code, and some the result of an
inefficient storage system; the figures are undeniable and not
disputed by Sun developers, but the shrieks of outrage in the
comments would be alarming even in a kindergarten.

So why is OpenOffice so dire? The project claims more than 50m
downloads of the software, so let's assume that 50m people have tried
it at least once.

More than 50,000 bugs have been reported. And how many have been
fixed by open source's uniquely efficient processes? According to the
(public) bugs database, at last count, there were more than 6,000
unfixed bugs, and more than 5,000 feature requests. While the number
of bugs discovered seems to rise with the number of users, the number
of fixes doesn't, and the number of fixers certainly doesn't. Only
about 500 people have signed the legalese that would enable them to
submit code to the project; since you need to do this even to make
changes to the website, that will translate to far fewer than 500
volunteers submitting real code. A reasonable guess would be 50, or
even five.

Meanwhile, there are some simple, hugely irritating bugs that are
four years old. Two obvious ones: notes (or comments, as Word users
call them) don't have word wrap; and spaces typed at the end of a
line won't show. It's not many eyes making bugs shallow; more like
many eyes making bugs invisible.

Most software has similar irritations. But complex open source
projects seem uniquely badly placed to fix them. They rely on a very
small group of programmers relative to the user base, and who have no
direct incentive to work on the bugs that are important to users.

Perhaps like Microsoft Windows, which took many goes to hit its
stride, OpenOffice 3.1 will be a world beater. But if it is, it will
have nothing to do with the fact that any user can, in theory, fix
things they don't like. It will be because large companies such as
Sun, Google, and IBM have decided that open source is the cheapest
way to gang up on Microsoft, because it means they need spend nothing
on support.

But, for what it's worth, I still think OpenOffice may be better for
books than Microsoft Word.

 Andrew Brown is the author of In The Beginning Was The Worm. His
blog is at www.thewormbook.com/helmintholog/

Regards,                           /\_/\   "All dogs go to heaven."
dinesh@alphaque.com                (0 0)    http://www.alphaque.com/
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