The Lone Coder Reflections for the Unsung Linux Saviours
by Ken O. Burtch
Spectacular Failures: Firefox 4 and LibreOffice
"My heart has been heavy and I have deliberated within my own conscience, knowing that my decision should not come out of my initial emotion of anger toward the President for such reckless behavior, but should be based on the facts."
-- Blanche Lincoln (U.S. Senator)
Yogi Berra, the baseball player and manager, once said, "We're
lost, but we're making good time." We all know people who are so obsessed
with speed that they actually slow down. People who don't take seconds to
document their work. People that don't take minutes to run some tests. People
who don't take an hour to plan out some skeletal data designs. A few months
ago I heard of a manager who fired a team member for becoming sick during a
time-sensitive project. Computer professionals are always concerned about
getting work done fast During a major site outage or a
48 hour deadline for a proposal, there's no time to worry about the consequences
of our actions. But projects slow down as they get larger and more complex, and
for any project
that takes more than a few days, documentation and strategic design is done to
speed the final deadline, as as Fred Brooks points out in "The Design of Design".
Often times developers who brag about their coding speed have designs that
cause the longest delays.
We had a couple of recent examples of major open source
projects that may have crossed the line from speed into splat.
First, Firefox 4 was released. The flagship browser of
Linux and the tool of choice for most web development professionals,
this new Firefox was described as having "super speed" and an
"improved interface" (Firefox Features Page).
What Mozilla delivered was a little different than advertised:
A browser that locked up many Windows computers. Announcing that they
were following an aggressive release schedule, the Firefox developers
released Firefox without properly testing their graphics acceleration
routines, causing some fonts not to render properly and would lock-up some
Windows computers entirely.
Linux users got the shaft. Many of Firefox 4's improvements came
at a price that they were Windows-only and no attempt would be made to
guarantee stability and support under Linux. Linux users would see no
"super speed" for months, if ever.
(Why is Firefox slower on Linux than Windows?, Internet.com).
Many of the web developers I know have been switching
to Google Chrome or other browsers, not because they don't like Firefox,
but because it's buggy and is hard to use.
Then there's LibreOffice. This project began in the late
1980's as StarOffice (Wikipedia),
a suite of office tools like a spreadsheet and a word processor. It was
first offered for free in 1998. Because it supported both Linux and
Sun Solaris operating systems, Sun acquired StarOffice in 1999, renamed
it OpenOffice and released it as open source. For 10 years, OpenOffice
was the premiere Linux office suite.
Then, in 2009, Oracle bought Sun Microsystems. Besides
OpenOffice, Oracle also acquired other open source friendly products like
Java and MySQL. This created a wave of paranoia: what if Oracle decided
to close source all of these products? It would be a terrible blow
Despite repeated assurances from Oracle that they had no
intentions of restricting the licenses on these products, 20 of the
OpenOffice developers went into irrational reactive mode, forking development
(OpenOffice.org offshoot LibreOffice debuts, CNet).
OpenOffice became LibreOffice. Another team turned MySQL into
Drizzle. Drizzle was a
fizzle: no company would switch from MySQL unless there was a reason,
but most Linux distros forced their user base to LibreOffice, whether the users
wanted to or not. Users were confused, such as author Piers Anthony, who
wondered in his April newsletter which product he was supposed to use.
Within 3 months of LibreOffice's release, Oracle announced
that it would no longer support OpenOffice
(Oracle orphans OpenOffice offering, ZDNet UK).
LibreOffice supporters saw a smoking gun: Oracle
was trying to kill OpenOffice. But others insiders pointed out that,
with most development and support switched over to LibreOffice, Oracle
was left with an orphaned product. LibreOffice's success may have
brought OpenOffice's downfall, creating the very fate OpenOffice
supporters had been afraid off.
Two spectacular failures, victims of their own success.
One successfully released too fast and created an under-tested
product that alienated its users. The other forked too early, confusing
users and possibly killing its own parent without cause. There ought to
be lessons to learn here about thinking before coding, but I'm concerned
that these teams are too busy making good time to realize that they are