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.
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.
This was an exchange that took place during Michael Meeks’ interesting Fosdem 2013 talk:
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.
Note: I write about LibreOffice / OpenOffice because I don’t like to see brands and volunteers wasted.