Last week, IBM announced that they would put somewhere around thirty developers on OpenOffice to help improve the product through bug fixes, new features, and collaborating with the OpenOffice team. The reason IBM says they are doing this is because they are seeing wide adoption of OpenOffice and it’s ODF (Open Document Format) by governments and companies the world over. But what makes this interesting is the fact that IBM is paying employees to work solely on an open source project, giving away features, code, and resources to a project that long term, makes them next to no money (if any at all). Big Blue seems to be doing this a lot lately. Why would a company do this?
I think that one of the many reasons that IBM has taken steps to help the open source community is because it is a good public relations move on their part. There are a lot of folks out there that support open source in a big way and as such, they support companies that support open source. People in the IT field that are pro-active in getting open source into their companies will recommend IBM products because IBM supports their favorite open source projects. Sure there are probably only a small percentage of folks out that are really trying to convince their C-people (CEO, CIO, & CFOs) into really integrating Linux and other open source projects into their IT infrastructure, but if you already have the larger percent why not try to woo the other smaller audience as well?
Another reason IBM might be doing things like helping OpenOffice and opening up their patent library to the open source community is because they believe in strength in numbers. The idea that someone might do what they did better, is not lost on them and they welcome someone to either do it better or innovate on top of it and come up with something completely new. In the end everyone eventually wins from this kind of behavior. Sure, it is okay to keep somethings proprietary (yes, I said that), but in the grand scheme of things, opening up stuff and helping out the open source projects, just helps make everything better.
Having IBM help out on the OpenOffice project also gives some much needed credibility to the OpenOffice suite and the ODF file standard. Just recently Microsoft lost it’s bid for ISO on their latest Office format, OOXML. And with the need for an open standard, ODF seems to be the next logical choice to push. It stands to reason that IBM might just be one of many large IT companies to task programmers with working on OpenOffice. A couple other companies are already spending time on it like, Red Hat and Novell. If IBM starts a trend to get other large IT companies to work on OpenOffice and other open source projects, you could begin to see a wider adoption of OpenOffice and other open source projects.
I think that this is a big step for the OpenOffice project, and I really anticipate what IBM is going to lend to the project and how much better OpenOffice will be as a result.