Just over a week ago, I posted the first of what I hope will be a complete set of interviews with the developers of the major open source and proprietary software suites that implement ODF. That Interview was with KDE's Inge Wallin, and addressed the KOffice suite — one of the two best known open source implementations of ODF. Today, it's the turn of OpenOffice — the other well-known open source implementation of ODF, and the most implemented of all software packages that support ODF. The interview that follows is with Louis Suarez-Pots, OpenOffice's Community Manager (LSP in the responses below), and John McCreesh, Marketing co-lead (JM).
The purpose of this series of interviews is to provide a comparative picture of the evolving ODF landscape, highlighting the strengths (and weaknesses) of each current implementation, so that potential users can judge which alternative is right for them. At the same time, it will illustrate the fact that a standard such as ODF, far from limiting innovation, can instead enable a rich set of products that distinguish themselves with additional features to attract users to their particular flavor of the same software tool.
Each of the interviews contains the same set of comparative questions, plus a smaller number of queries directed at features, history, or other factors unique to that product. As with the KOffice interview, this series of questions and answers is included in full and unedited, with the goal of creating a record of the developer's or communities view of its product today, and its vision for the future of that product tomorrow.
At the end of the series, I will seek to summarize the results and, if possible, find a suitable expert(s) to provide their own comparative evaluation of the implementations. If you are such an expert and willing to participate, please get in touch with me.
OpenOffice.org (often referred to simply as OOo) describes its application as follows at its About Us page:
OpenOffice.org the product is a multi-platform office productivity suite. It includes the key desktop applications, such as a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation manager, and drawing program, with a user interface and feature set similar to other office suites. Sophisticated and flexible, OpenOffice.org also works transparently with a variety of file formats, including those of Microsoft Office, and the vendor-neutral OpenDocument standard from OASIS.
Available in over 65 supported languages with more being constantly added by the community, OpenOffice.org runs stably and natively on Solaris, Linux (including PPC Linux), Windows, Mac OS X (X11), and numerous other platforms. Our porting page lists the platforms (ports) that OpenOffice.org can run on.
Written in C++ and with documented APIs licensed under the LGPL open-source license, OpenOffice.org allows any knowledgeable developer to benefit from the source. And, because the native file format for OpenOffice.org is the vendor-independent OpenDocument open standard, interoperability is easy, making future development and adoption more certain.
The genealogy of the product is interwoven with that of Sun’s StarOffice ODF implementation, and indeed with ODF itself. The predecessor code for both OpenOffice and StarOffice was written by StarDivision, a German company that sold the program to Sun Microsystems in 1999. Sun released its first version of StarOffice (5.2) in August of the same year without charge, and in July of 2000 announced that it would make the source code of StarOffice available suite as the basis for an open source project. That project became OpenOffice, which Sun continues to support both economically and through the contribution of developer time. StarOffice also became the starting point for the ODF standard, which the current versions of StarOffice and OpenOffice each support, completing the circle. OpenOffice is available under the Lesser GPL.
1. Goals and hopes
Q: What is the OpenOffice.org’s vision for OpenOffice.org? Where would you like to take OpenOffice.org and what do you hope it will become?
JM: Our mission statement is: “To create, as a community, the leading international office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide access to all functionality and data through open-component based APIs and an XML-based file format.”
LSP: Right, and the most important thing for the foreseeable future is indeed to fulfil our mandate and make OpenOffice.org the leading office application—and broadly interpreted that means enabling OpenOffice.org to be localized to any possible language, porting it to all platforms, and making it available to all who need it.
It also means that we have to broadcast that OpenOffice.org is open to extension and plugin writers, tools that extend the application; we are opposed to bloat and for giving the user the choice to add those things she wants. (We are LGPL, so proprietary extensions can work fine with the source.) Further, we need to penetrate the huge markets that are totally in the MS camp—financial markets, for instance. This won’t happen immediately, but I should think the writing is on the wall.
Beyond that, I would like to break the model of what an office suite is and what it does that Microsoft has imposed upon us for so long. To give one example, OpenOffice.org is perfectly positioned to become the collaboration tool of choice. Because we use open standards (and our code is open), we can more easily work with other applications and tools. In contrast, Microsoft effectively requires its users to buy into the Microsoft system if they want to collaborate; difference is not really allowed and the innovation of the market is squelched.
Looking out several years, then, I see OpenOffice.org as the tool of choice for intra- and internet collaboration, and as the source for unencumbered and unlimited creativity and innovation as developers and entrepreneurs throughout the world find new ways of shaping and packaging the source into stacks and tools. OpenOffice.org is increasingly popular in areas outside the US in large part because it comes unencumbered: one can make of it what you will, it does not tie the user or developer to a particular market or company. But development of OpenOffice.org in India, Brazil, China, and elsewhere, is still emerging, still nascent. Let’s see what happens.
Q: Has that vision changed over time, or have these always been the project goals?
JM: That’s been our mission for as far back as I can remember…
LSP: True; but I’d add that the mission statement is broad enough to allow for extension and expansion.
Q: How many developers are involved in the whole OpenOffice.org community?
JM: Most open-source projects have problems answering this question, and OpenOffice.org is no exception. The most widely-quoted figure I have seen is around 100.
LSP: John is right. It’s particularly difficult with OpenOffice.org, I like to think, because anyone can submit a patch via our bug tracker—in fact, we state that we prefer that method–meaning that a developer need not have commit access. One can also work in a team, as many do, making counting individual developers nearly impossible. But as a rough guide of those with and without commit access, one can use our “Copyright Approved” page, which lists those who have signed a form jointly assigning copyright to Sun (copyright holder) and themselves. It’s here and counts well over 650. Many of those are not code developers, however. A complete listing of code developers again would be very difficult, given the various work methods throughout the world.
Q: How many are paid developers, and how many are “extended community?”
JM: Again, even this isn’t easy to answer, as for example you might find developers paid by Sun Microsystems to work on StarOffice also working on OpenOffice.org as volunteers. We certainly have more funded developers than we do volunteers. However, developers are the exception. If you look at the community as a whole, the overwhelming majority of contributors are volunteers.
LSP: Right again, though to give credit to the corporations involved in OpenOffice.org, we can count Sun, Intel, Novell, Google, Propylon, Red Hat, Debian, and many others. I think more generally that there is a notion, a hangover from the earlier days of free and open source (FOSS) development, that the iconic open-source developer is or must be a volunteer, someone who disdains the market for his love of coding. Think fin-de-siÃ¨cle notions of art for art’s sake. But in fact FOSS developers have never been so removed from the market, and with the investment in open source by enterprises this decade, FOSS has become a production strategy predicated both on a set of licenses and production logic of transparency and openness. This means that there are lots of allocated employees working side by side with volunteers on this and other projects, and it’s an amazingly productive combination.
3. In what ways is OpenOffice different from KOffice?
Q: In what ways is it better?
JM: I don’t profess to be an expert on KOffice. OpenOffice.org 2 is a mature product which started life in the mid-eighties and now comprises more than 7.5 million lines of code. It offers everything that users expect from a fully-featured office productivity suite: word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, drawings, database… It’s available on a wide variety of platforms, and in an ever increasing range of languages. From the start, it was designed as a single suite, and this gives it a unity of look and feel that you don’t get by bundling separate packages together (look at MS-Office).
Q: In what ways is KOffice ahead of OpenOffice.org?
JM: Just as there are Mac users who won’t look at anything that doesn’t have an apple on it, so there are KDE users who only run software prefixed with a K. If their needs from office software are modest, then KOffice will no doubt be their software of choice.
Q: How will this change in the next version of OpenOffice.org, and when is that release (or interim release) scheduled to issue?
JM: I don’t see this situation being changed significantly by future releases of OpenOffice.org.
4. In what ways is OpenOffice different from StarOffice?
JM: StarOffice and OpenOffice.org are both built from the same codebase.
StarOffice is a commercial product, sold by Sun Microsystems with the full range of support and technical services you would expect from one of the world’s leading IT companies. Sun also adds some commercially-licensed extras into the box – such as additional fonts.
OpenOffice.org is a free of charge community supported version, and is available in a wider range of languages than StarOffice.
5. In what ways is OpenOffice different from IBM Workplace Managed Client?
JM: I’m afraid have never been able to get hold of a copy of this product to compare it with OpenOffice.org. I’ve searched on various IBM websites and am still not much the wiser as to what it is, what it does, or where IBM are going with it.
LSP: Agree. Hey, if IBM wants to tell us how Workplace differs from OpenOffice.org, which it uses, in a way, I’d love to hear it. I’d love also to get my hands on Workplace to test it.
Q: What types of users would OpenOffice.org be right for? For example, would it only be right for a developer, or someone with an IT department able to provide support?
JM: OpenOffice.org is the right product for literally anyone who needs a full function office productivity suite. Our target market goes from individual users at home right up to multinational organisations and governments.
LSP: I’d add that OpenOffice.org is a perfect application for the public sector. Here’s why: it’s free. If a public sector office makes available a document (in ODF, ideally, but also in .doc or .ppt, or .xls, or .rtf or .txt, it doesn’t matter, OpenOffice.org reads them all), the citizen or resident should be able to read it without having to buy a costly and proprietary application. Suggestion: put OpenOffice.org in every library and internet kiosk throughout the world.
Q: What types of users might be happier with Microsoft Office?
JM: There’s around 30,000 folk in Redmond, WA whose jobs might be on the line if they switched to OpenOffice.org 🙂
Occasionally we come across people who have built entire business applications using MS-Office VB Macros, or who have “MS-Office only” plug-ins to other software packages produced by third party vendors. They would have difficulty migrating.
LSP: For these users, and they do represent a persistent percentage, we suggest: stay with MS Office. There is no need to force uncomfortable change. OpenOffice.org can work with MS Office so that files created using Office will still be legible, even as the rest of the world moves to OpenOffice.org and ODF. (Besides being readable by Office, they will be readable by OpenOffice.org, that is; backward compatibility is an application not format attribute.)
Q: Will this change much with the next OpenOffice.org release?
JM: I don’t expect the Redmond situation to change significantly, although independent studies show they could save a fortune by migrating to OpenOffice.org 2 rather than MS-Office 2007 🙂
VB Macro spaghetti is a business issue, where companies need to decide whether they’ve used the correct platform for building business critical applications. The plug-in issue should start to disappear as more vendors provide native ISO 26300 file support.
Q: Who provides support for OpenOffice.org today? Do you expect the support community to grow, and if so, where and how?
JM: There’s a large and enthusiastic user support community on the net, in many different languages, both on the official OpenOffice.org website and a variety of unofficial sites. As the user base continues to grow, so does the support.
There are also companies making a good living providing training, support, migration assistance, etc. on a commercial basis.
Q: Is there a “Red Hat” for OpenOffice.org today? Do you expect there to be?
JM: If you mean a commercial partner: Sun Microsystems founded the OpenOffice.org community and remains the community’s principle sponsor. More recently other well-known names in the IT industry such as Intel, Red Hat, and Google have sponsored developers or community activities.
LSP: Right….The market is still wide open and we are seeing, in many nations, new companies come into existence that offer everything from specialized versions of OpenOffice.org to support.
Q: The one criticism that seems to be most frequently leveled against OpenOffice.org is that it is “bloated” and slow. At least one reviewer claims to have performed tests in which OpenOffice.org performs poorly against MS-Office, supposedly relating to what must be loaded in connection with certain functions. Do you think that this criticism is warranted, and to the extent that it is, is there a plan to address this in the future?
JM: I’ve read some of these “tests” – one reviewer based his assessment on a spreadsheet of 16 sheets with 16,000 rows of raw data (and no calculations). How was that supposed to help normal users decide on office software? The fact is, OpenOffice.org has tens of millions of users (of which I am one) who find it more than adequate for real-life computing tasks on fairly humble PCs.
That’s not to say the community is complacent about performance. We have independent benchmarks which prove OpenOffice.org 2 is faster than 1.x. Developers love squeezing more out of the code. At last year’s OpenOffice.org conference there were fascinating presentations on this subject – it will continue!
LSP: I would only add that the beauty of open source and open standards is that it’s much easier to improve the code; one does not have to be within the iron walls of the corporation to get things done. We have thus a procedural advantage over proprietary systems and can come out with tested and qualified releases faster than proprietary systems. And as more use OpenOffice.org and demand more of it, the faster bugs will be resolved and the sooner desired characteristics will be incorporated.
Q: How does OpenOffice.org compare with MS-Office with respect to accessibility for those with disabilities?
JM: OpenOffice.org exposes information to Assistive Technology (AT) via the Java Accessibility API, so it should work with any AT that supports Java applications. This works both on MS-Windows and on Linux/Solaris with GNOME.
Q: Do you expect that OpenOffice.org will become as accessible as MS-Office?
JM: In general, AT support for Java is much better on GNOME than on MS-Windows. This is not a limitation within OpenOffice.org, but in MS-Windows AT, which concentrates on other applications rather than Java.
As Java usage becomes more widespread, especially among large corporations, it is likely that AT support will improve significantly on MS-Windows.
As this is a complex subject, you may care to refer to: http://www.openoffice.org/access
8. What is the road map for OpenOffice.org going forward?
JM: The OpenOffice.org Marketing Project produced a Strategic Plan two years ago, which laid out a roadmap for the following five years. The Plan stated:
Thanks to the long history of development, OpenOffice.org is a mature product and independent reviewers acknowledge that it ‘provides the core functionality that most users need’. The Community’s goal is for OpenOffice.org to stay in this position of meeting all the needs of the typical ‘office’ user; to offer a simple and clean migration path from significant competitors; and to be available to users on the platform and in the language of their choosing.
It is likely that the market’s expectations of an ‘office’ product will change, e.g. growing to include a browser, email, calendaring, etc. If this happens, the community would try to meet those expectations by an alliance with a compatible open-source project. However, if a group of developers offer to write e.g. a whizzy native email client I’m sure the community wouldn’t say no!
Leaving development aside, our main challenge is to make OpenOffice.org available in as many of the world’s languages as possible. This is a particular focus for 2006, as UNESCO has chosen ‘languages and cyberspace’ as the year’s theme following ‘International Mother Language Day’. Why should someone be forced to learn a foreign language before they can use a spreadsheet or a word processor?
The community is really proud of the work that has gone on and is ongoing in this area. The community’s translation and native-language projects provide a great opportunity for people to contribute to OpenOffice.org in ways other than hacking code.
LSP: I’ll try to add a few more points… With 2.0, which we released late last year, we reached a state where the code could be progressively improved, refined, added to. Thus, going forward, expect new features added to the binaries (executable application) on a regular and fast basis; expect new extensions and plugins, in the model of Firefox or Thunderbird; expect a progressively faster and leaner code and correspondingly faster application. Expect a more capable and better OpenOffice.org.
We are thus not promising a version of what proprietary systems promise and deliver once every 18 or 24 months–Cool! New! Bloat!–But rather features that satisfy needs—and delivered sooner rather than later. To be sure, the basic technology will advance—hints were raised at the last OpenOffice.org Conference in Koper, last year—and I think we all look forward to seeing how the community will shape its destiny.
Q: Are there any ways in which OpenOffice.org is not fully compliant with ODF? If so, what is the plan for addressing this?
JM: OpenOffice.org has fully supported the standard since version 2.0 and is the de-facto reference implementation of the standard.
LSP: I think another way of looking at the question could be: Do we manage files covered by the ODF idiosyncratically? And I think the answer to that would be, not that I know of. (To be sure, I may be missing something but if so, it’s likely fairly minor. Files created by OpenOffice.org can be saved using OpenDocument extensions.)
Q:- What differentiating features can we expect in OpenOffice.org in the future?
There are many. One can think of: Features that make OpenOffice.org more appealing (better GUI) and efficient to use. I know this is a quite vague way of phrasing it but there are many, many features coming soon that address user needs. And this includes, of course, accessibility. Features that further make OpenOffice.org the best collaborative production tool will continue to arrive, and this very well could include, integration with groupware solutions, as well as with Web applications.
Q: Please describe the licenses under which OpenOffice.org is made available, and whether there is any reason to expect any variation on this answer in the future.
OpenOffice.org uses the LGPL. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
10. ODF and OpenOffice.org
Q: What did the release of the ODF standard mean for OpenOffice.org? Was there no question that the community would wish to support it?
JM: OpenOffice.org 2 used ODF as its native file format. The community was delighted when it was ratified by OASIS as an open standard.
LSP: To add to John’s comment, OpenOffice.org was in many ways the crucible where the ODF was forged; it hosted much of the development team and provided the space for discussion, testing, evaluation. I doubt the ODF would be what it is today without the role OpenOffice.org played. We first started using a version of the ODF (it was modified by the OASIS TC) with early versions of OpenOffice.org. When the OASIS OpenDocument format was ratified by OASIS, we moved to using it (this was with 2.0) and changed our mimetypes accordingly. There was strong support of this move by the community, and with the release of 1.1.5, which can read ODF files, there was also backward mobility; 2.0 can read .sx- files with no problem.
Q: How would you like to see the ODF standard evolve in the future? What would you like to see added to it?
JM: The main need now is for rapid and widespread adoption of the standard by users and software suppliers. The standard also needs an independent certification authority which can ratify software for compliance. As more software adopts the standard, we would expect the standard itself to evolve through an open standards process in which the OpenOffice.org community would continue to play a full part.
LSP: At the moment, the ODF is a great start but it’s just that. I would hope to see a variety of elements that enable collaboration, for instance, eventually included in the definition. The danger is for proprietary formats to use monopoly power to impose their formats as a “standard,” and thus cut short real collaboration, that is, the ability to work together using tools that come from more than one brand but which speak the same “language.”
11. Recent Events
Q: What effect do you expect the approval by the ISO/IEC membership of ODF to have on the fortunes of ODF supporting software in general, and of OpenOffice.org in particular?
JM: ISO 26300 marked approval at the highest standards level for the ODF. It really is a revolution in the IT industry – the first time that users have been guaranteed ownership of their own office data, and not be at the mercy of software suppliers.
Looking further to the future, I sincerely hope we will see new ways emerge of manipulating and presenting data which will free people from the tyranny of spreadsheets, word processing, and ‘death by PowerPoint’. It would be wonderful if these tools – which we cannot even imagine today – emerge from the genius of people in the OpenOffice.org community.
However, even if the software comes from elsewhere, my dream is that it will be able to use the ODF files pioneered in OpenOffice.org 2. That alone would secure OpenOffice.org a prime location in the IT hall of fame, and earn the OpenOffice.org community the gratitude of generations yet unborn.
LSP: I have little to add to John’s excellent summary except that the ISO approval gives, finally, the green light to any number of public sector offices to use not just the ODF but its best implementation: OpenOffice.org. This is great for all. But what it also speaks to is that more and more developers will move to OpenOffice.org. It’s one good thing that the format is open—that helps users and some developers; that we are also open source means that there are no obstacles to working on the code, developing it, and making it a thing of the community’s genius.
Q: The Massachusetts ITD has issued an RFI asking for information on plugins to facilitate conversions between MS-Office documents and ODF compliant software. Does OpenOffice.org have any plans to develop and/or bundle any such tools?
JM: We’re already there. OpenOffice.org 2 uses ODF as its native file format, and can also use a wide variety of MS-Office file formats. It includes a Wizard to help with bulk conversions of MS-Office files.
LSP: I agree with John, with the addendum that an Office plugin makes sense for the public sector, for it must satisfy accessibility demands. A lot of work is being done on improving OpenOffice.org’s accessibility features, of course (one can visit, say, the UI project here to learn more), and by major corporations, but if a state such as Massachusetts has a mandate to migrate to ODF by 2007, a plugin may be the most expeditious way to ensure accessibility.
That said, I see a plugin as a stopgap measure and think the better solution is to continue to improve OpenOffice.org, either by adding to the source or creating plugins for it. Keep in mind that OpenOffice.org is still newborn; 2.0 is not even a year old, and many of the extension and plugin writers who have added to MS Office’s capabilities have yet to come to OpenOffice.org. So, an invitation to them: Write your plugins, extensions, addons for OpenOffice.org! It is used now by tens of millions of people and will be used by many tens more by year’s end, including governments and enterprises. Our source is open, the format open.
For further blog entries on ODF, click here