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July 6th, 2016

LibreOffice and Nextcloud: It’s Almost Deja vu All Over Again

It’s easy to be tempted to draw a parallel between the recent fork of ownCloud by Nextcloud and The Document Foundation’s fork of OpenOffice six years ago. Slight differences are there, but they’re probably meaningless.

There are more than enough similarities between the recent forking of ownCloud to Nextcloud and the creation of LibreOffice out of OpenOffice six years ago to draw comparisons, but there are also many differences. As Yogi Berra might say, they are the same but different.

fork owncloud for nextcloudOpenOffice, if you’ll remember, was forked by a group of developers who had been frustrated for years by roadblocks to what they saw as necessary development by Sun Microsystems, which had created the open source project out of Star Office, a proprietary suite it purchased in the late 1990s. When the situation worsened after Oracle took ownership, the developers created The Document Foundation, forked OpenOffice and released it as LibreOffice under the GPL. Improvements became evident right away, with much of the early work centering on cleaning up the bloated code base.

On the surface at least, the recent forking of ownCloud was much the same. A group of developers unhappy with the project’s direction forked it to create Nextcloud. The developers also promised that functions in the enterprise edition that were non-free would be reimplemented as free software released under the AGPL. Similar to LibreOffice, less than a month after the initial forked release, an update was issued bringing improvements.

There are some differences, however. Unlike The Document Foundation fork, which was a group organized project, the Nextcloud fork appears to have been spurred primarily by Frank Karlitschek, ownCloud’s founder, with help from Jos Poortvliet, one time community manager for ownCloud and openSUSE. Just five weeks earlier, Karlitschek had resigned his position as CTO of ownCloud, Inc. By appearances, the move wasn’t entirely altruistic and was at least partly motivated by profit, which isn’t a problem in and of itself, as long as profit wasn’t the overriding motivation. For better or worse, this is a capitalistic world and bills must be paid, children must be fed and mortgages must be paid.

However, the new project did come with a commitment to FOSS. Unlike ownCloud, which required users of the enterprise edition to pay licensing fees for the use of included proprietary software, Nextcloud promised to adopt something similar to the Red Hat model, with a promise that all software would be free, with the company paying its bills through support subscriptions.

So far the company is standing behind these promises. The update to Nextcloud 9 announced on Tuesday returns many of the enterprise functions which had been proprietary in ownCloud as rewritten free and open source software. As Karlitschek explained to eWeek for an article published the same day as the update, “Nextcloud is building open-source replacements for the ownCloud closed-source enterprise-only features. With this release, 80 percent is done and the rest will be coming soon.”

Not only have previously proprietary functions been returned as open source, new capabilities have been added at the enterprise level. “At the moment, we have a new and super easy way to theme your Nextcloud installation with different colors and logos directly from within the Web interface,” Karlitschek also told eWeek.

The update also includes Security Assertion Markup Language (SAML) for Single Sign-On Authentication (SSO), which were developed in collaboration with several universities and research institutions. In addition, the company has become a participant in the Open Cloud Mesh initiative, which according to Nextcloud’s website, “aims to link researchers and universities in Europe, the Americas and Asia via a series of interconnected, secure private clouds.”

While it’s too soon to tell if this fork will be as beneficial to free tech as LibreOffice has been, so far it appears that Karlitschek and his team are making a good start.

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

3 comments to LibreOffice and Nextcloud: It’s Almost Deja vu All Over Again

  • “as long as profit wasn’t the overriding motivation”

    That is not a requirement for a FLOSS project. It is the license that matters. Nobody cares what the motivations are; they are irrelevant as far as FLOSS principles go.

    Let us say someone releases a new FLOSS software, or forks an existing one. Maybe he or she does it only to become popular. Or to make money. We can choose on an ideological basis that we do not want to use the program or support the developer, but the motivation hardly changes the FLOSS status of th project. One can think and dream of anything he or she wants while developing.

    If we think there is a nefarious motive behind the project, well, audit the source code!

  • Sum Yung Gai

    I must agree with Adam. Red Hat’s profits are definitely the prime consideration to the company’s stockholders. The company cannot exist without making a profit.

    What Red Hat has shown is that you can make a profit, a very large and healthy profit, by selling and supporting Free Software. Jim Whitehurst is a corporate CEO focused on turning a profit. Red Hat has taken several pieces of proprietary software (e. g. the Netscape Server Suite) and Freed it under the GPL, for sound business reasons. The founders of the original MySQL AB also turned a very healthy profit selling and supporting Free (GPL’d) Software, which explains why Sun wanted to buy them. Cygnus, of Cygwin fame, did the same kind of thing when it was independent.

    As long as it’s Free Software, it doesn’t even matter if the maintainer is a jerk. Theo de Raadt is a prime example of this; he’s a total jerk to where even Linus Torvalds has referred to him as “difficult” (just think about that for a moment–*Torvalds* of all people calling someone “difficult”–wow!). But he runs a team that produces a mighty fine, and Free, operating system (OpenBSD). I can audit the code. I can do whatever I want with it. For that, I’m grateful to de Raadt and his team.

    Speaking of Torvalds, he is also a known jerk. But look at what he and his team hath wrought, too. I don’t care for some of Linus’s motivations; I wish he were more of a Free Software proponent like RMS would like for him to be. But Linus isn’t. That’s OK, that’s his right. What matters is that Linux (his kernel) is Free Software.

    –SYG

  • @Adam Elteto
    @Sum Yung Gai

    I guess I wasn’t clear enough. The mention of profit of a motivating factor was to compare the differences between the OpenOffice and ownCloud forks. I tried to make clear in the article that profit as a motive isn’t necessarily a negative.