Free And Open Source Software (FOSS) Is Gradually Developing Its Commercial Ecosystems In Asia
Author: Kuan-Ting Lin
Translator: Franklin Weng
Foreword: the LibreOffice Asia Conference was successfully held in May 2019 in Tokyo. Kuan-Ting Lin, a university student and civic tech reporter also attended this conference and gives his observations here. In Part I, Kuan-Ting provides readers who are not familiar with FOSS, the Open Document Format (ODF) and LibreOffice a view about how FOSS communities work, and how FOSS grows its business opportunities and ecosystems.
On June 18, 2019, almost all of the government agencies in Taiwan’s cabinet received an official document from the National Development Council (NDC). “When exchanging digital documents between government agencies, the file format used shall be the Open Document Format (ODF) if the transferred files are editable… Do not use proprietary editors to directly save as ODF files… It is highly recommended to use the NDC ODF Application Tools or LibreOffice to generate standard ODF files.”
“This is the most exciting and cheering official document in recent years!” said Dr. Chao-Kuei Hung, a Science and Technology Studies (STS) researcher and inveterate FOSS promoter. In the document, users in Taiwan government agencies are asked to not use proprietary office suites like Microsoft Office to generate documents, and therefore not save and spread “.doc” or “.docx” format files, which people are quite familiar with.
Instead, they are asked to use free and open source software – which lets people to download, research, improve and redistribute it – like LibreOffice. They need to save and transfer documents in ODF format, which is an ISO standard (see the upcoming part II of the report for details). For most people, this seems to be a confusing policy; however, it will surely affect our lives in the future. For us, it is even as important as metric units like kilograms or meters.
In 50 Years, From Microsoft To Communities, There Are Huge Software Ecosystem Changes In The Taiwanese Government
The story begins more than 50 years ago. In the late 1960s, the Taiwanese central government introduced the first batch of computers for tax data registration. This purchase started the era of Taiwan’s digital government. With the increasing burden of people using computers, the government had been constantly buying and installing huge numbers of Microsoft product licenses, the majority of which were Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office. Such unrestrained purchasing and use of Microsoft software had made the government a subject of criticism by the parliament and the supervisory court more than a decade ago.
Legislators held a press conference in 2002 to question the administrative system, and pointed out that the Ministry of Justice had “illegally allowed Microsoft’s bid rigging”. At the time, Minister Ding-nan Chen replied that he would “wait for other software to achieve a certain degree of universality and compatibility,” and then the Ministry of Justice “would not rule out considering adopting it”, which clearly suggested that options other than Microsoft were simply not sufficient for the government at that time.
The fact that the Taiwanese government’s editorial policy changed from the early conservative mentality to today’s announcement of abandoning Microsoft’s commercial solutions proves that a free and open source office suite, developed by the community, has already been able to establish its own “ecosystem”. Companies in different fields in this ecosystem provide various government information services, while meeting the government’s high requirements for stability and security. However, here is an interesting question: Aren’t FOSS community members against the concept of commercial companies and software? Why do they set up their own company in the ecosystem?
The Formation of a FOSS Ecosystem
Let’s get back to the end of May 2019. Many LibreOffice community members gathered together in Tokyo to attend the first LibreOffice Asia Conference, and discuss how LibreOffice – which was born and grown up in Europe – could develop in Asia, where the culture and policies are quite different.
Franklin Weng from Taiwan, the only Asian member in the Board of Directors of The Document Foundation (TDF) – the legal charity entity behind LibreOffice – was there too. Franklin has been deeply involved in the Taiwanese FOSS community, and is also one of the founding members of Software Liberty Association Taiwan (SLAT). In early years he simply contributed and promoted FOSS in government agencies and schools as a volunteer community member. Nevertheless, through these years he realized that it wasn’t enough. “Business and policies needs to push each other. Now LibreOffice and ODF are slowly moving toward this direction: Policy goes first, and then gradually forms the business model.”
Franklin started his own business a few years ago, which helps the public sector and other organizations to adopt FOSS solutions. Through the community’s connections and long-term accumulated trust, Franklin’s team has successfully co-worked with the National Development Council (NDC), the Yilan County Government, and many other central agencies in the Taiwanese government to provide training courses and consulting services.
The lecturers who work with Franklin are mostly freelancers and are also involved in the FOSS community as deeply as he is. Therefore, besides teaching skills for using LibreOffice, the lecturers would also share free software concepts and issues with users from government agencies.
The integrity of FOSS ecosystems also depends on the integration of other fields. Shigenobu Koufugata, a member of the Japanese community who lives in Chiba, Japan, purchases old computers, installs high-performance, low-cost free software, and then resells the renovated solutions to consumers.
Users of second-hand computers often lack certain computer knowledge. Therefore, if they can use the computers straight after buying them, they can avoid the high threshold of downloading and installing additional software. Shigenobu believes that this can naturally attract more users to try LibreOffice.
In addition to software training and hardware support, software development is of course indispensable to the ecosystem. Italo Vignoli, one of the co-founders of TDF, stated clearly: “Our main assets are developers.” LibreOffice has hundreds of developers since everyone can participate; however more than half of the development contributions are made by employees of companies such as Collabora, CIB and Red Hat. By developing the required features or customized versions of LibreOffice for customers, these companies can direct profits and feedback to the community at the same time.
The Open Source Software Integral Institute (OSSII) in Taiwan is one of the few companies that provides LibreOffice business services in the Chinese-language area. One of its products is the “NDC ODF Application Tools” – a customized LibreOffice designed for users in the Taiwanese government – provided by the NDC in Taiwan. The CPC Corporation, Taiwan, a large state-owned enterprise (around 16,000 employees) with 73 years of history, is one of their customers.
At the LibreOffice Asia Conference, Mr. Wen-ke Huang, an employee in CPC who is responsible for the infrastructure information systems and ODF adoption, shared his experiences and analyzed the reasons and methods for adopting ODF and NDC ODF Application Tools.
In contrast to Microsoft’s ecosystem, where companies are mainly selling licenses and external add-ons, FOSS allows anyone to contribute code and even publish their own customized versions. This enables community members to participate into the core aspects of software development. Besides, the growing demands for FOSS application training and second-hand hardware also encourages community members who are expert in different fields to join the ecosystem.
Commercial Company That Is Loyal To The Community
Unlike normal commercial software companies, FOSS-related companies would keep thinking about their responsibilities as members of the community while making a profit. Making money is one thing, but since the community is the original motivation of the company’s founding, the two must cooperate with each other.
The first LibreOffice Asia Conference follows this thought. “I asked the Japanese community about hosting the first LibreOffice Asia Conference, because I found that they have a very good and active community, and hence can go further to find appropriate business models,” said Franklin. “When I attended LibreOffice Kaigi or similar events in Japan and presented what we have done in Taiwan, they always showed their envy and said that it was very difficult to promote LibreOffice and ODF in Japan. However I think that they’re doing very well; they just need to start thinking and finding more business opportunities. So the topic of the first LibreOffice Asia Conference was business. I hoped that after the discussions in the business workshop and certification interview, they have more confidence to start moving to business.”
“Running an FOSS-related company gives me not only the ability to contribute without any worries in the community, but also to find business opportunities for other community members from our experience, and to use the operating principles to consolidate the FOSS ecosystem on the ground,” Franklin explained additionally.
Although commercial companies in the LibreOffice ecosystem can contribute to the community while having profits, the relationship between the company and community is not one-way assistance. Sometimes it can be tough if the relationship between the two is not good.
An obvious example is the former OpenOffice.org community and Oracle. A few years beforehand, Oracle acquired Sun and hence a large amount of OpenOffice.org’s development fell into Oracle’s hands. It was dangerous because Oracle has never been friendly to FOSS, so some core OpenOffice.org community members decided to fork LibreOffice and founded The Document Foundation. “That’s why they chose a foundation as the form of the organization. TDF emphasizes the independence of the organization, very much due to the previous troubles with Oracle,” said Franklin.
Italo described the differences between the OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice communities. “We reverted the paradigm,” said Italo. “This is OpenOffice, the company protects the project. So it’s like when it rains, if you are under the umbrella you don’t get wet. We reverted the umbrella (for LibreOffice), and this is the concept of the mixing bowl… We jump into a bowl and we have every one of us moving in the same direction.”
The independence of the community is not only reflected in the organizational form. Although the development work is mainly carried out by commercial companies, TDF still dominates and makes decisions about the direction of the community and software development.
In order to maintain this independence and avoid conflicts of interests, the statues of TDF stipulates that the composition of the Board of Directors and Membership Committees must not have more than one-third of its members belonging to a single company or organization. With such rigorous management, communities and companies can find the right balance for each other.
Ideals And Business Can Cooperate Through Certification
At the end of the LibreOffice Asia Conference, the TDF’s Certification Committee held a public interview with several candidates from Taiwan and Japan. As long as these candidates were approved by the committee, they would become “LibreOffice Certified Professional Trainers”, which implies the expert skills and abilities to teach LibreOffice; or “LibreOffice Certified Migration Professionals”, to assist organizations to adopt and migrate to LibreOffice.
For TDF, these certified migration professionals and professional trainers are important ways to promote the concept and develop business. “I invited the LibreOffice Certification Committee to attend this conference and talk about business. I hope to discuss with the community about what can be done, and what can be noticed when training,” said Franklin, who has been a certified migration professional and professional trainer since 2016.
Eric Sun, a TDF member and a candidate in the certification interview this time, won unanimous approvals from the committee and became a certified migration professional and professional trainer. Eric used to work in the Open Source Software Application Consulting Center (OSSACC), a project under SLAT, to promote FOSS and public domain educational resources in schools. He then co-worked with Franklin to promote ODF/LibreOffice and has been the ace lecturer in Franklin’s team. Becoming certified by TDF can no doubt bring him more credits and opportunities, both for business and for promoting FOSS.
LibreOffice will be ten years old next year. TDF was founded in the shadow of a large commercial company at that time, but those members who set up the foundation may not have expected that the seed of document liberation and LibreOffice can be spread across the sea, to the distant lands in Asia, and set roots in the ground there, with a philosophy of equal emphasis on ideals and profits.