LibreOffice 4.0 was launched last week, and the news reports and activity on social media were massive, more than any release of LibreOffice or OpenOffice before, with better coverage than many of Microsoft’s well-funded introductions. There were numerous links sent around to the usual sites like LinuxToday.com, but also TechCrunch, VentureBeat, Time Magazine, etc. A fair amount of the chatter was people wondering what the difference is between the two versions. Some have basic questions like whether LibreOffice can import their OpenOffice documents.
LibreOffice is introducing their new name and community to the world. All the major Linux distros are already aware, but there are many Windows and Mac users who don’t understand what is going on. People even become attached to names for emotional reasons. Brands are powerful. If you were in a remote village in India on a hot day, you’d quite likely grab a Coke to cool your thirst if that was the only one with letters you recognized. Even people who like to travel and try new things might not want to take a risk on something that looks like carbonated, used bathwater with funky characters when they are tired, hot and thirsty.
Picture by Hari Kishan & Shardul Pandey
In the realm of software, the considerations are different but related. Many are afraid to try new things because technologies so frequently come and go. People have been burned by Farmville, Zune, Tweetdeck, iTunes, Nvidia, Comcast, AT&T, Sprint, Sun, Adobe, Gnome 2.x, Microsoft, IBM, etc.
Some people look down on the LibreOffice / OpenOffice codebases because the user interface is more clunky than Microsoft’s Office, but many who spent time in it saw how it handled their files, has many features, and is generally stable, fast, portable and free. People became attached to “OpenOffice” during the hours they spent expressing their creative ideas. Many attach greatness to the name rather than to the people who built it. This makes people uneasy to try LibreOffice.
If you were to explain to OpenOffice users that Oracle laid off all the programmers before handing the trademark to Apache, and their new team is legally unable to accept changes made by LibreOffice, they might realize they should try the newcomer. That disclaimer is currently not on the Apache website. It would also be a useful warning if they listed all the features missing from LibreOffice. The current full list is already mind-blowing (4.0, 3.6, 3.5, 3.4, 3.3), and they are just getting started (Easy hacks, GSoc).
The biggest issue to consider is the opportunity cost. Instead of enhancing the existing OpenOffice brand, the community is forced to rebuild a new one. That is especially unfortunate because there are many people in LibreOffice who contributed to OpenOffice, and made the brand worth what it is today. As Apache OpenOffice is unable to accept LibreOffice changes, the brand is being squandered. And instead of adding resources, Apache are playing catchup, mandating an inferior license for this codebase, and inferior tools.
Because Apache OpenOffice has the brand, and a handful of full-time employees working on the codebase, they can find always ways to report good news and give the illusion of progress: “There have been 35M downloads, which saves the world $21M per day.” “Who wants to help with the wiki?” “We’ve now got 6 workitems tagged as Easy Bugs.” “Can someone dig up the documentation of our SDF format?” “It would be great to get someone to package OpenOffice into Fedora and give users choice.” “We found 50 naive^Wnew volunteers to help with QA in our recent call for help.” Etc.
Question: I don’t know if I’m the only one, but I’d love to see peace between LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice. Is that in the works?
Michael Meeks: Okay. Well, I think there are lots of opportunities for code sharing. We provide code under a license that Apache can incorporate, into their binary releases at least, so I think there’s a lot of scope for that. And, I think you’d have to go and ask them. I’m not really interested in talking so much about that. I might say something rude.
People in the Linux community are aware of the situation, but many don’t realize that there is very little LibreOffice can do to improve things. LibreOffice cannot prevent new forks from being created, and no one inside was threatening to fork. LibreOffice couldn’t prevent Oracle from giving away the trademark to anyone. LibreOffice couldn’t prevent Apache from creating a project that doesn’t accept their code. LibreOffice can’t prevent new people from getting confused when they see Apache, OpenOffice, and a pretty website, not realizing this is basically the “pet project” of an IBM employee.
It seems like people inside Apache could do something, but many of them liked the idea of having two “cores”. They see themselves as the upstream with the more open license, and LibreOffice is free to grab whatever code they find useful. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that as these codebases diverge, this becomes harder. LibreOffice no longer uses the SDF format for localization. So between the confusion, and the illusion of progress by a stream of money, we could be here a while. IBM has been around for 100 years. Perhaps they’re happy to wait until everyone is dead and hope the next generation of LibreOffice representatives is more amicable to their plans. As far as for things getting better, the best sign to look for would be if IBM were to send their representative new directives from the Home Office. You do see comments stating they’d like to end the fork. If only they had that wisdom before they created one. However, it appears they have no ideas what to do next. More wisdom is yet required.
LibreOffice is doing very well for such a young team. The free software community is jumping in and improving the codebase in many ways. However, the community could easily use millions of dollars to hire more people to work full-time and mentor volunteers. Perhaps the greatest concern is a lack of people who understand the Writer layout code, which is the most complicated piece of logic in the entire suite. Code and people are valuable, but people who understand code even more so.
With big decisions, it is nice to have a paper trail. I can find no supporting documentation backing up the decision other than one blog post written after the fact, which doesn’t give very much information.
It appears the decision was made in a meeting. It is great to have meetings to discuss things, and it is great to make decisions in meetings, but oftentimes the best results are about moving the decision-making process forward, not actually committing to big things. Even if there were many in that room, there are surely facts they didn’t have, and other interested parties who were not there. There is the risk of “tyranny” by a self-selected cabal. Hopefully the decision wasn’t made at a bar
To be clear, some of the reasoning is explained. Here are my responses:
1. Our language of choice needs to be dynamic and high level.
Python and many languages fit that description.
Next, it says:
Unfortunately, that is not really much of a reason. In fact, it could be perpetuating a bad plan with this logic.
3. There’s a lot of work going into the language to make it especially fast, embeddable, and framework-agnostic.
Every language works to make itself fast. There are lots of efforts to make Python fast such as Cython and PyPy, and as many Gnome libraries will remain in C, this is hardly an issue even with the standard CPython implementation.
I’m not sure what the benefit of being embeddable is for a desktop UI. And Python is embeddable as well, inside apps like LibreOffice. I don’t undertand what the benefit of being framework-agnostic is. Every language needs libraries, and a rich set of libraries is a good thing.
Aren’t Windows 8, mobile, and local web applications supposed to be a worse experience than a Linux desktop? I imagine living exclusively in any of those platforms and shudder at the thought. They also aren’t planning on sharing code with any of those groups. Please don’t try to convince people the Gnome future is bright by using those three examples!
My day job is trying to finish a movie (trailer) endorsing Python as part of math literacy. Changing how math is taught to children could take a generation. But if Gnome get going now, they will be ready, and hopefully also be better than Gnome 2.x by then (I’m stuck in MATE. I believe the decision to remove Gnome 2.x is as good an idea as LibreOffice removing DOC import. This decision can be revisited also, but given how long ago it was made, I’m sure people are tired of the topic, so I will end here.)
Congratulations on leaving Microsoft. Unless you have bills to pay, you won’t regret it. I left at the end of 2004, and have since studied a vast and amazing — but still flawed – world of computing out there.
For example, I discovered that we should already have cars that (optionally) drive us around and computers that talk to us. And that Linux on the desktop is powerful and rich but failing because of several strategic mistakes. Google claims to be a friend of Linux and free software, but most of their interesting AI code is locked up. Programming should be a part of basic math literacy for every child. The biotechnology world is proprietary like Microsoft, which is stunting progress in new medicines and safer devices.
The most important lesson is that the free software world outside Microsoft is much bigger and richer. No matter what aspect of technology you want to work on, there are codebases and communities out there. Even the large companies who write proprietary software like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Twitter use free software as their base. So you first find out what you want to work on, and then you find the existing codebases and communities to join. In some cases, the are multiple, so you need to decide which best meets your needs.
The good news is that there are already millions of smart people working on any aspect of technology you’d like to work on. That is important because now that you have left Microsoft, you greatly lose the ability to control your own destiny using their technology.
When I first left Microsoft, I took on a consulting job helping a team build a website which used Microsoft Passport as the authentication mechanism. However, as I ran into problems, even Google wasn’t able to help because the knowledge and ability I needed to fix my problems was locked up behind the Microsoft firewalls. Fixing a problem in proprietary software can sometimes feel like performing witchcraft — you have to try lots of random incantations because you can’t know what is really going on. In the free software world, the code, buglists, specs, discussions, etc. are public, and anyone is welcome to contribute. A warning though, it can be like herding cats.
I read you have a Microsoft Surface. I recommend getting another machine and installing Mint-Debian Linux. You’ve probably heard of Ubuntu, but Debian is the 1000-person team that provides the rock Ubuntu builds upon. Mint is a very popular re-spin that adds mp3 playback and other features that have patent risks and can’t be part of the free Debian system. The Windows app store is a Potemkin village compared to what Linux offers. I remember you have a Unix background, I recommend refreshing your knowledge of the command line and reading some new books. I felt like a stranger in a strange land for the first couple of months, but it became perfectly comfortable to me, and has numerous advantages such that now I am as interested in using Windows as I am in using DOS.
I don’t recommend you bother with Apple. They have a proprietary walled garden even smaller than Microsoft’s. If you find a problem with Apple’s technology, your best option is to wait. If you find a problem anywhere in the free software world, you can file a bug, talk to a person, (usually) find a workaround, write some code, hire someone — or wait.
The other nice thing about this global community is that you don’t have to go anywhere to join. You can write code in your pajamas from Seattle and send it to Linus Torvalds in Portland who works from home in his. The Linux kernel alone has 3,000 programmers, scattered all over the earth, some of whom live in countries that are officially at war with each other.
It’s obvious that many of your correspondents either haven’t read your article [about the reasons against the Apache OpenOffice fork] or don’t understand it. However, I want to comment on forking.
First of all, the ability to fork is good. However, not all forks are good. Forking occurs when one set of parties in a development project develops serious objections to the direction the project is going. Once the fork occurs, usually the vast majority of the community choose one tine of the fork, and the other one withers.
Example: Remember XFree86? The leadership of the project became very unresponsive to community requests, to the point that many community members were complaining, and new contributors felt unwelcome. It actually forked into several tines, but soon most of the community settled on the X.org fork, which has thrived, while XFree86 went nowhere after the fork.
Sun was rather unresponsive to the OpenOffice.org community. Many potential contributors wouldn’t join the project because they would have been required to deed ownership of their code to Sun. But for whatever reason or reasons, the OpenOffice.org development community never grew to anything like the size of other open-source projects of similar scope. Then Oracle bought Sun, and many in the community simply didn’t trust Oracle to lead an open-source project properly. Sun was bad. Oracle was intolerable. The result was the LibreOffice fork.
LibreOffice appears to be thriving, while there seems to be little happening in Apache OpenOffice.org, other than press releases. This is a sign of a good fork. As some have commented, There is some instability in recent releases, but I also see the RIGHT THING™ where I didn’t see it before. (E.g., when you click on the change-the-font-size drop-down list, the current font size is now in the center of the list rather than at the top as before.) The increased pace of improvement is a major sign of the successful tine of the fork.
The Apache OpenOffice.org effort must be considered a fork of LibreOffice, even though it has its predecessor’s name. As you have indicated, the original OpenOffice.org project is dead. (The project is dead, but the Website lingers on…) So this isn’t the original, this is a fork. It’s a bad fork: it’s bad because there are no significant complaints about the direction of the LibreOffice effort. And, I believe, with you, that this fork is wasting resources, and it is dead. It is dead because (all complaints about which license is more desirable aside) there is no likelihood that developers will abandon LibreOffice for Apache OpenOffice.org.
Finally, a word about IBM (and other corporations related to open source development): IBM does not have friends. It has interests. When its interests align with the open source community, we will perceive IBM as “good.” When its interests do not align with the open source community, it will do things we consider “bad.” Remember that IBM, or any corporation, is legally required to do what is in the interest of its shareholders. Govern your relationship with the beast accordingly.
The first is that the Apache OpenOffice project went public about a year ago. And in the meanwhile, all they’ve done is make a build with a small amount of new features:
Most of the new features they will announce are features done by Sun / Oracle, but never debugged / shipped. Only a handful of features have been achieved by this new organization. In other words, while Apache are now making a release under the OpenOffice brand, it is not a version moves things forward very much. It should be a concern that the value of the OpenOffice name is decreasing. How many would still be running Firefox if it didn’t make major improvements for 2 years? What is the point of a brand if you aren’t building the best product to represent it? It is cheapest if the brand is handed over to LibreOffice, though primarily IBM stands in the way. In the meanwhile, explaining to as many people as possible that LibreOffice is a better OpenOffice is helpful. I am happy several people mentioned LibreOffice in my movie interviews.
The Apache incubation started because IBM didn’t understand that LibreOffice had just build everything they would need and that copyleft is considered a good thing by many. IBM are convincing a few handfuls of naive contributors to use lax license with a primary benefit that allows IBM to use but not give back. I don’t recommend these people play poker.
The biggest point from that chart is that it documents how Apache OpenOffice is behind and will never be able to catch up with LibreOffice, especially considering their license prevents them from incorporating LO code. It should have been possible to predict these results a year ago, and now we have the evidence. I don’t expect these facts to make it into the skulls of smart but stubborn people at IBM, but it is a good reminder of the situation. There will surely be some announcements of their first release coming soon, and which will ask the community to try it out and help. Fortunately, the Linux community is already clued in to what is going on. LibreOffice is one of the most important communities to enable more people to run Linux on a full-time basis. There are many ways for people to help out.
Here are some great quotes by Milton Friedman which describe some of the biggest problems in modern society.
The greatest advances of civilization, whether in architecture or painting, in science and literature, in industry or agriculture, have never come from centralized government.
The most important single central fact about a free market is that no exchange takes place unless both parties benefit.
The only way that has ever been discovered to have a lot of people cooperate together voluntarily is through the free market. And that’s why it’s so essential to preserving individual freedom.
If you put the federal government in charge of the Sahara Desert, in 5 years there’d be a shortage of sand.
Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest?
Many people want the government to protect the consumer. A much more urgent problem is to protect the consumer from the government.
Most economic fallacies derive from the tendency to assume that there is a fixed pie, that one party can gain only at the expense of another.
So that the record of history is absolutely crystal clear. That there is no alternative way, so far discovered, of improving the lot of the ordinary people that can hold a candle to the productive activities that are unleashed by a free enterprise system.
The black market was a way of getting around government controls. It was a way of enabling the free market to work. It was a way of opening up, enabling people.
The Great Depression, like most other periods of severe unemployment, was produced by government mismanagement rather than by any inherent instability of the private economy.
Many Americans feel their country is crumbling too. There have been demonstrations in the US against the current government for 2 years now. They are known as the tea party. They protest for economic improvement like people are demanding in your country.
The official storyline in the US is that the tea party protesters are: “racist, uncompromising, potentially violent, and stupid”. The movement is mentioned regularly in the US news, and on comedy shows, and it is almost exclusively in a negative light. (Here is one example.) This is in spite of the fact that they have not flipped over even one car yet. This is done mostly to slow the growth of the movement, and it has had great success. Almost everyone who has not seen or been to a tea party rally are fully convinced they are diabolical.
The good news is that the solution to economic stagnation in our countries is simple: we need to unwind the bankrupt welfare state.
Maybe you could create a tea party in the UK? We’ll combine efforts! We can send you Sarah Palin and you send us Daniel Hannan.
Another huge problem is single motherhood. Incidence of this in the UK is the highest in Europe. Single-motherhood is a consequence of the welfare state. The social and economic are thoroughly mixed!
Open letter to an Apache mailing list regarding their OpenOffice incubation plan. This was originally written in June 2011, so is out of date but much still applies.
Having written code in Microsoft Office, why this Apache fork is bad is intuitively obvious to me. I wish everyone had the same instincts. In the days since I first saw the announcements, I’ve been reading and learning a number of additional facts that helped me understand all the reasons why for this situation.
Here I will summarize the “no” vote reasons against this Apache incubation proposal. While reading, I gained respect for the Apache foundation and the OpenOffice brand. There is love people attach to these names. Apache could offer poop on a stick and it would have downloads and people curious about how to make it better.
Many of us want all of these good ideas and energies to be channeled. The LibreOffice team is not a raging success yet and they’ve just climbed some big hills. Yet no one inside is complaining of a reason to fork.
Given all I have read, this is my (unfinished) list for the arguments against:
This is mostly a code dump, not the set of 50(?) full-time engineers who have created / been maintaining this code.
This technology is massive. It is about the same size as the Linux kernel (10 million lines). This is a world that thousands could get lost in. Because the codebase is so large, it makes the cost of the fork that much greater.
IBM’s priority will be on Symphony and Notes (which build on top) more than the core code.
Much of the expertise is at Sun / Oracle, and IBM is not bringing many of them over.
IBM’s biggest investment here is “open source” evangelists. They believe the community will build everything for them.
This is mostly a cabal of IBM / Sun evangelists trying to confuse Apache into letting them fork the LibreOffice community.
The Apache foundation has a lot of experience, but none with this technology. Therefore, their help will be limited. It is like asking a hospital to fix your car.
The Apache foundation requires developers use SVN, which is not as good as Git for handling a large distributed project.
The code dump is missing a lot (filters, images, translations, etc.)
OpenOffice is now primarily a brand to be preserved.
This brand is in jeopardy now.
There is nothing to incubate. LibreOffice has just built everything you need.
There is no company waiting to build some amazing technology like Watson in LibreOffice but hold back because of its “restrictive” license. These are just fantasies IBM can promise and a rhetorical trick because anything about the future is impossible to disprove.
A proprietary Watson could be built on LO today. LGPL is the ideal license for this codebase, a compromise between GPL and Apache. LibreOffice should not compromise anymore.
This proposal is considered to have a practical license agreement, but grabbing code changes from LibreOffice is said to be impractical. This is not considered a problem.
Linus said that making Linux the GPL was the “best thing he ever did.”
Copyleft is compelling to small LibreOffice contributors. “Do you really want to write Apache 2 (AL2) so that IBM can make it proprietary and sell it?”
The move from Java towards Python in LO will add more barriers.
There is a lot to be done: polish, services, plugins, mobile, etc. We don’t have people to waste.
LO has just recruited many of the most passionate and experienced volunteers and other unaffiliated third-parties.
People will show up here because of the Apache, OpenOffice, and IBM name. They will not understand what is going on.
There were 87 contributors who signed on to this proposal, but many are just curious.
The leaders create bad plans, find curious and naive people who “support” it, and use those numbers as proof that their plan has merit and should go forward.
The community of contributors to this podling is artificially inflated with “advocates” and not many people with expertise in the OO codebase.
Microsoft would root for Apache to fork the LibreOffice community.
LibreOffice is a young community, so some are easily confused and frightened. Many barely know this name “LibreOffice”. Meanwhile LO needs and would love to have more people.
The OO brand was given up by Oracle primarily because of the success of LibreOffice.
The OpenOffice brand would be very valuable to LO today.
These “open source” evangelists from IBM, Sun, etc. should hand over the OpenOffice trademark before they hurt someone. LibreOffice can maximize the value and carry it on best right now.
They need all kinds of help. They are not turning down one contribution, and no one inside is threatening to fork because of problems.
The hardware / bandwidth costs are not very expensive. It is the human costs.
It is not just a question of if you fail, but what is the damage in that failed experiment.
There is also the opportunity cost of doing something better than failure.
Rather than using resources to help LibreOffice, they are used to hurt them, and waste their own life rebuilding what LibreOffice has just finished.
If this podling fails, it could hurt the value of the OpenOffice brand, LibreOffice, waste resources (these emails are just the start), hurt Apache’s reputation, etc.
Forks are one of the biggest reasons why free software has struggled in places. For an example in another industry, look at Blu-Ray vs. HD-DVD.
People at IBM responsible for Notes / Symphony may get bad reviews for building on top of a dying fork and when internal customers complain the product isn’t as good as what comes with Linux. These “open source” evangelists are supposed to have their finger on the pulse of the community, not their finger in the face of the community. I stole that from someone
No major revisions have been proposed.
A “no” vote on current idea is fail-fast and the potential for a better plan.
LO see this as a danger. They received more cash donations since this announcement.
It will only be a trickle of volunteers. If more show up, LibreOffice can recruit in bulk.
With the interested people already occupied, this will never catch up with LibreOffice.
Wise people I have consulted with in LibreOffice believe this will fail.
Some are not even worried anymore, but I am less confident.
Some believe the Apache foundation is being used to legitimize a premature idea.
I believe the result will be the same no matter the vote unless the plan is changed. This plan is like an animal chewing off its own paw even though it wasn’t stuck in a trap.
Once you have written failure into your plans, like to build a house out of sand instead of concrete, these “friendly” meetings to resolve differences cannot achieve much.
May, 2012: IBM has made their proprietary Symphony code available for free. Initially, many thought that the primary reason IBM wanted this project in the Apache foundations was because because they wanted to build a proprietary Symphony on top, and only the lax Apache license allowed for this. So now that the their proprietary code is free, even this reason disappears.
I am an un-affiliated observer rooting for Linux on the desktop and Python over Java. I have spent years surveying and writing about Linux so I’ve come to respect the Apache server very much. Any rude bits in my mails were directed at IBM I believe they should know better than to attempt to fork a community. I think the Apache foundation has been caught in the cross-fire of the language and license battles. I feel sorry for these political battles. There are also actual proprietary competitors to fight as well! Isn’t that the most important?
Even if this is born, and fails, the community will pick up the pieces. It has many times before. The LO opinion of the plan is close to unanimous and strongly-felt. My feelings are more mixed.
Perhaps this can help serve as impetus for the vote. Many are curious to its result and are anxiously awaiting.
Hope this work is helpful.
Update: June 13: The podling was created. Oh well, Rome wasn’t built in a day. It is tragic that they’ve designed failure into their plans. Not only that, the opportunity cost of combining resources immediately. Reading their plan, some sentences are reasonable, and some stand out like daggers.
A better plan would have helped instead of hurt. These emails were a huge waste of time, and just the start. Many “open source” evangelists are actually hindrances. Some think forks are okay because they’ve happened before. This is like advocating for slavery because slavery has happened before.
The worst part is that the supporters of this plan made no changes to address the major flaws found by the community since the proposal was first announced. It is rude not to retract and make a new plan when relevant people have big objections to your idea. If you want to get code into the Linux kernel, you need to fix all the problems people find. Plans can be refined and improved, but this did not happen. The cost of the flaws only gets more expensive as this goes forward. Therefore, it was cheapest to vote this down now, so we can make a new plan. The new plan would involve something like making LibreOffice and its license the mainline, and merging TDF and Apache. Who knows where it goes from here.