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Sir, I don’t know where your ship learned to communicate…

07/03/2012 2 comments

But, dear 3PO, at least it’s making an attempt. Which is more than can be said for certain organisations, in spite of the recognized importance of good communication. Let me take you back a few years…

Most developers will already know what I mean with the OpenOffice to LibreOffice fork. For the rest of humanity, the short version goes something like this: StarOffice (then owned by Sun Microsystems) is made Open Source back in 2000 to counter the dominance of Microsoft Office. Called it OpenOffice and hey presto, there was a free alternative to Microsoft Office. Then Oracle buys Sun Microsystems and suddently trouble is afoot. I won’t even bother to try and dissect who did what to whom and who was right or wrong. The short of it is, most of the community upped sticks, took a “copy” of the then version of OpenOffice and set up a rival project called LibreOffice. That’s what’s called a “fork”.

Oracle then divests itself of OpenOffice by donating it to the Apache Foundation but that’s not so relevant here.

What IS relevant is they way in which this was all done. From the early days of OpenOffice, there were lots of translation teams, including a lot of “small” languages because normally languages like Tibetan, Bodo and Oromo don’t even get a look in the door of proprietary software houses. So they put in lot of time and effort into translating OpenOffice into their languages. To do so, they use an online tool called Pootle. Like a big set of tables with stuff to be translated on the one side and your translations on the other and remembers bits you already translated. It obviously gets more complicated than that but that’s Pootle (or indeed any translation memory) in a nutshell. Ok, neat.

I joined OpenOffice late in 2010 when I got fed up with the Gaelic translation of OpenOffice having fallen several releases behind. Although technically legal under the OpenOffice license, the people who had been paid to translate OpenOffice into Gaelic (a company called Cànan) did what’s normally frowned upon – instead of sharing the translated strings with the Pootle server of OpenOffice, they built their own installation packages and distributed those from their own servers and via LTS (today called Education Scotland). In essence, sitting on the translations like a mother hen on its eggs. Your guess is as good as mine as to why. Anyway, the upshot was that I had to start from scratch again. Given I also used the chance to ensure the terminology aligned with the rest of the Gaelic software universe, perhaps not a bad thing but a lot of unnecessary work nonetheless. But regular sleep is for wimps.

So, there I was steaming ahead, when rumours of this new LibreOffice project reached me. To cover all bases, I also sign up for that project on the recommendation of a friend. But I continued my translation over on OpenOffice as I’d already started there. I reach the 2/3 mark when suddenly, the OpenOffice Pootle server goes dead on a Friday or Saturday I think it was. Not to worry, it’s probably just a glitch I tell myself. Yeah right. It never came to life again. Ever. No matter how many emails I posted to the mailing lists, nothing. Not even a response. Neither on the lists nor, thinking it might be more diplomatic, off the lists.

Luckily, I had just taken a backup the day before. Very lucky indeed, a total fluke as I’m not normally that regular in making backups of stuff I figure other folk are backing up. So I did manage to migrate over to LibreOffice fairly unscathed but nonetheless scathing. If not for myself, for the other teams who may not have been so lucky. And counting in at about 100,000 words, it’s not just a piece of cake doing that from scratch.

But wait, it gets better… Oracle donated the whole project to Apache, remember? Well, Apache are still trying to figure out what the most recent set of translations are and how to get the whole thing up and running again.

More than a year on, I’m still seething about it (as you may have guessed). Perhaps the developer mailing lists were all abuzz with the impending shutdown. But most translators don’t follow the development lists, there’s only so much mail an inbox can take. I don’t know. All I know is that on the translation lists, no-one warned about the shutdown. Which would have been – at the very least – the decent thing to do because whatever storms were brewing on the development side of OpenOffice, the translation list was concerned with its main aim – translation, not politics.

And to my knowledge, no one bothered to tell the users anything either. Not for a very long time anyway. All they noticed was that stuff wasn’t working as it should any more, like the extensions site which kept going offline.

Localization is often seen as an afterthought to “the real work” and while I don’t agree, that’s just the way it is. Fine. But 100 hours of a translator’s lifetime are just as important as 100 hours of developer lifetime. Loosing that tends to make translators a bit tetchy. It perhaps comes as no surprise that the majority of translators have decamped to LibreOffice and look set to stay there, even if Apache OpenOffice comes back on stream.

Which, especially in the Open Source world where volunteers (remember, they volunteer, they’re not serfs) have the choice of going somewhere else, tells you one thing – if there’s big stuff afoot, it pays to communicate this to the folk who might not be in the midst of the firestorm but who are involved nonetheless.

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