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It was in September of 2010 that a group of key members of the OpenOffice.org developer team announced that they were no longer willing to wait out the uncertain future of OpenOffice, especially in the face of the lack of interest shown by Oracle, the new owner of the project following its acquisition of Sun Microsystems nine months before.
Their announced intent was to form an independent foundation to host a fork of the OpenOffice code base, thereby achieving a goal they had sought throughout ten years of control by Sun – to work in an environment free from the control of a single vendor.
It's now two and a half years later, and with the release of LibreOffice 4.0, that Foundation is not only flourishing, but forging a path independent of its predecessor.
Indeed, much has happened since the decision to fork was made. Oracle lost whatever interest, if any, it may have had in supporting OpenOffice. Eventually, it acquiesced to IBM’s request to transfer the trademark rights and code to the Apache Foundation, where work continued, largely by IBM developers. A first release (3.4) of what is now called Apache OpenOffice was made in April of 2011, and reportedly a version 4 will issue this year. And in October of 2012, the OpenOffice project graduated from the Apache “Incubator” program to full project status.
But the real focus of community effort from the beginning has been in LibreOffice. True to the promise of its founders, The Document Foundation was formed under German law. By then, most other community software projects had already switched their allegiance and support from OpenOffice to LibreOffice. And while both OpenLibre and OpenOffice sometimes incorporated code of the other into its own code base to avoid needless duplication of effort, perhaps inevitably a degree of sniping surfaced between the two groups (see, for example, a series of blog posts by Rob Weir that culminated with this entry on November 4 of last year).
Now LibreOffice has decided to take the next step away from its former home, as clearly signaled in a blog entry by Charles-H. Schultz announcing the imminent release of LibreOffice 4.0.
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Calling it a “big and important release,” he notes in his summary of changes that major changes in the API:
…will allow, with time, for the introduction of deeper changes and a more powerful API. On a more abstract level, these changes also mark a more radical departure from the OpenOffice.org codebase, and it is now becoming quite difficult to just assume that because OpenOffice.org, Apache OpenOffice behave in one specific way LibreOffice would do just the same….LibreOffice 4.0 is becoming a different animal, and that comes with its own distinct advantages while clearly showing our ability as a community to innovate and move forward.
Lest the point not be appreciated, Charles-H returns to the significance of the separation from OpenOffice later in the same post, stating:
In a sense, the 4.0 is actually an existential release, as it marks the departure from the past….The 4.0 is not just an update, it represents a deep change for LibreOffice and enables us to come closer to fulfilling our mission: to create the tools for knowledge and the instruments of freedom.
One can’t help wonder what effect the continuing strength of the LibreOffice movement will have on Apache OpenOffice. SourceForge reports 30 million downloads of OpenOffice through last month, which by any measure is significant. But if IBM were to decommit to the effort, the future of the project would presumably be in doubt – and IBM has far less reason to support OpenOffice today than it did during the ODF-OOXML standards wars.
Does it matter whether OpenOffice survives? The answer, I think, is both yes and no. On the one hand, splitting the effort between two projects inevitably means that each project has fewer resources to work with than might otherwise be the case. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that the very reason that the existence of an open source office suite is so important is because there has been no effective competition in the office productivity space now for decades. The predictable result has been the stagnation of innovation in Microsoft Office.
As one who has spent the majority of his adult waking hours over a keyboard, I would give a great deal to see vibrant competition return to the productivity software marketplace. It took Mozilla to bring innovation back to browsers, and with the entry of Chrome into the fray, we have even more innovation to sample now than ever. From that perspective, an increasing separation between OpenOffice and LibreOffice is tremendous news, because differentiation means alternatives to choose from, and also the likelihood of even greater competition.
But it all has to start with one viable competitor to the incumbent, and right now, it looks far more likely that the most viable competitor will be LibreOffice.
So with that in mind, congratulations to the Document Foundation team, and here’s to terrific success for LibreOffice 4.0!
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