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LibreOffice 4.0 And The Power of Brands

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.

kancha cola walacroppedPicture 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.

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.


  1. This is a question from an end-user perspective. Let’s assume there is a man who is in position to have the power to make a courageous and intelligent decision. What should he/she do in order to promote the most free and open Linux office suite? Scrap OpenOffice and direct the resources to LibreOffice … or the opposite? Thanks in advance for your opinion.

  2. I participated in a Google+ discussion on LibreOffice the other day. An opinion was voiced (not by me) that LibreOffice was too ugly to love (though not to use). I found that unfortuneate considering how well the suite works. I’d suspected, even then, that there just wasn’t enough volunteer hours to tweak both the app and the icons. More the pity that two separate and disperse teams must work apart on two projects that have so much in common. I happen to love LibreOffice and continue to recommend it.

  3. I’ve recently tried the newest Apache OpenOffice (3.4?) ; I’ve tried to open some spreadsheets from my colleagues (.xlsx, or whatever MS Office spits out) . Boy, did they look like crap.
    On the other hand I have yet to find a document that opens poorly with LibreOffice 3.6
    Ok, I know one: once, at work we received a .pptx which had lots of information in coments. Google Docs, LibreOffice, and OpenOffice failed to open the comments inside those slides.
    But that’s pretty much it.

    I would like to see any of the too FOSS office suites taking a different path, like exploring new interface possibilities (but please let go of the ribbon crap…), and while some competition it believed to be better, there are just too few developers to spread them across 2 projects.

  4. Very interesting. I am wrong to perceive in the text that Libreoffice have been having problems to be accepted because the OpenOffice brand is still best known???
    Weird, since most distros include Libreoffice now!, and – as far as I know – it’s growing faster and stronger.
    Live long and prosper, Libreoffice. Let the fork disappear and all the efforts focus on ONE huge office package.

    • Well, in realm of Linux LO is already the de facto standard, so I don’t think they have much trouble there. Perhaps masses of Windows and OSX users are still getting AOO. I’ve recently pointed an AOO Mac user into LO direction and he was amazed how majority of his issues with AOO don’t exist in LO.

      The fact remains that it’s open source advocacy, not Sun or IBM, that pushed OpenOffice on two commercial platforms en masse in the first place so if I had to put my money somewhere on this bet, it would be that whoever wins on Linux is the winnner in the end.

      If Apache wants to do the right thing they (not Rob Weir as he probably has lost most of his credibility in that community) need to approach TDF on one end, with IBM aproaching SuSE, RedHat (and let’s not forget Cannonical who now has the ball and runs like hell) on the other end and finding a way to really have one common codebase with now two great brands.

  5. Actually, I beleive that the side-toolbar design of Caligra is a proper concept. There were some mockups for Libre in that direction which were spot-on. Too bad we’ll probably not see anything like that in actual software at least in this decade.

  6. […] LibreOffice 4.0 And The Power of Brands 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. […]

  7. Good article. Personally, I think Libre Office is a lame name that is trumped alliteratively by Open Office. And it isn’t even English.

    I am reminded of that cartoon of two donkeys tied together and each trying and failing to reach some hay as they pull in opposite directions… Then work together by taking it in turns.

    As an aside: There’s a precedent for IBM killing a great word processor: XyWrite.

    Lots of good products die of stupidity and wilful blindness of the companies behind them, alas.

    • English is an evolving language originating from the old German (thanks in part Lord of Rings book) borrowing from other (Latin based like French due to William the Conqueror and Spanish). Apache is not English yet it is successful as server.

  8. The whole afair is very much unfortunate.

    In terms of branding and trademarks, we often get it wrong.
    Specifically, the brand/trademark for about the last ten years of development was “OpenOffice.org”. “OpenOffice” is just the popular name, and it is not a trademark. Even if you read the relevant FAQs, they do mention this piece of information.

    About two years ago “OpenOffice.org” died as a project. “LibreOffice” has been the first child, and then was “Apache OpenOffice”. These are their respective proper names.

    Strangely, if you visit http://www.openoffice.org, you are showered with misleading information about a “OpenOffice”, and then links towards “Apache OpenOffice”. No reference at all to “LibreOffice”. Per the popular meme, this is the “Scumbag Apache Software Foundation” attitude. They are trying to milk the OpenOffice name in order to divert people to “Apache OpenOffice”.

    From the people at the Apache Software Foundation the most toxic appears to be Rob Weir (IBM). Read the discussion at https://lwn.net/Articles/532665/ and the comments by Rob Weir (username: rcweir). It is about a relevant issue with the code from Symphony. Instead of putting the issue to rest, Rob Weir is attacking everyone.

    As long as Rob Weir (IBM) is at the Apache Software Foundation, I do not see any way that the situation will get better. He is a bully and a toxi person.

  9. You would rather the fork had never happened? Then all those links you showed to stuff-now-missing-from-Apache-OpenOffice would be empty! Forks are a sign of health. Cooperation is hard, creation is easy — the power of forking is that you lower the threshold to creation without the friction of cooperation.

    Making two groups of people work together on the same stuff is not going to get the project done faster, it might even make it happen more slowly (this is a corollary to Brooks law). Cooperation is a by-product, not a goal in itself. Similarly, you cannot have healthy code producing communities without some code duplication; reducing duplication is not the goal, creating the code in the first place is the goal. Writing code is easy, integrating it is hard. LibreOffice has managed to integrate code from many, many volunteers, doing what OpenOffice never managed. They would not have been able to do this without forking, since the community (that is, the people who did the hard work of code integration) had no control of the project.

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