LibreOffice - A fresh page for OpenOffice
by Richard Hillesley
BROffice, Google, Novell and Red Hat are among the sponsors of LibreOffice, a community led fork of OpenOffice that is to be developed under the umbrella of a European based non-profit to be named The Document Foundation.
While development of the new fork will focus around the developers inherited from Novell, Red Hat and Debian, the project has the support of the great majority of the community surrounding OpenOffice.org; Among those who have expressed support for LibreOffice and the Document Foundation are the Free Software Foundation, the OSI, OASIS, Canonical, credativ and Collabora and the GNOME Foundation.
The Document Foundation has been presented not so much as a fork as a chance to refresh the development of OpenOffice.org around a broad-based ecosystem that is no longer reliant on the commercial interests of a single company. LibreOffice is not the first fork of OpenOffice.org that has taken place, but previous forks or branches such as Go-OO have only enjoyed limited community support.
Significantly, Oracle has been invited to become a member of the new foundation and to "donate the brand the community has grown during the past ten years". While Oracle considers this invitation the project will continue under the LibreOffice brand. In the words of Michael Meeks "Ten years after Sun's original promise of independence for the OpenOffice.org community we are going to create the non-profit foundation around OpenOffice that they promised on day one."
The early focus will be on polishing the existing code, and absorbing the various community patches that are typically incorporated in the versions of OpenOffice.org used by most GNU / Linux distributions. The major distributions, including Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora and SUSE, will ship with LibreOffice in preference to OpenOffice.
Versions of LibreOffice for Windows will continue to be made available, and it is unlikely that the first pass of LibreOffice will diverge significantly from OpenOffice.org, apart from the a little bit of polish and the inclusion of plug-ins that are excluded from OpenOffice for copyright assignment reasons.
In future, however, users can expect to see a far more responsive and inclusive approach to LibreOffice development and a more expansive and adventurous office suite. The ownership of the foundation and LibreOffice names are currently assigned to a German non-profit, OpenOffice.org Deutschland e.V.
Owning the code
Oracle's purchase of Sun, and the ongoing debates about 'open core licensing', dual licensing and copyright assignment, have highlighted a number of issues of importance to the developers who contribute to open source projects.
There was always a conflict between Sun's wish to be a contributor and beneficiary of 'open source' projects and the corporate pressure to retain control of the "Intellectual Property" contained in these projects. Sun always retained ownership and tight control of its projects through ownership of patents, in the case of Java, and devices such as copyright assignment, in the case of OpenOffice.org.
Copyright assignment gave Sun the right to redistribute contributed code under any other licence. Sun was, to some extent, a trusted steward of open source projects, so developers were relatively happy (with some notable exceptions) to sign over the ownership of their code, but as circumstances have shown, conditions may change, and even the most trusted companies may be bought or sold.
A significant difference between LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org is that there will be no copyright assignment, and the code will belong to the individual developers, as it does on many other free software projects.
Consulting the Oracle
Sun had an undoubted history as a contributor and beneficiary of open source projects. Bill Joy, the prime architect of SunOS and Solaris, was the lead developer of BSD Unix, and wrote vi, NFS, and Berkeley's TCP / IP stack before moving to Sun. Sun's support of free and open source software was sometimes ambivalent but often significant, as its support of Java, the GNOME desktop, Mozilla and OpenOffice.org and countless other projects demonstrated.
Oracle's relationship to open source is less clear, and has been clouded by the decision to assert its ownership over Java by suing Google for infringement of patents and copyright, and the simultaneous ending of support for OpenSolaris. Some projects, such as VirtualBox, which make a good fit for Oracle's portfolio, are predicted to thrive under Oracle's stewardship. Others, such as OpenSolaris, have reverted to closed source development.
The future of OpenOffice.org, and the extent of Oracle's commitment, are uncertain.
The worry for the OpenOffice.org community has been that OpenOffice.org does not fit comfortably into the Oracle firmament, and will suffer from a form of benign neglect, allowed to continue, maintained and supported, but lacking the energy and freedom that encourages open source projects to grow.
André Schnabel, who has worked as a Quality Assurance Lead for OpenOffice.org, as a Lead in the Native Language Confederation, and in localisation for the German Native Language project, says that: It feels like Oracle is "a mother who loves her child but is not aware that her child wants to walk alone."
Michael Meeks put it more succinctly: "The news from the Oracle OpenOffice conference was that there was no news."
Nonetheless or because of this, in their announcement of the prospective LibreOffice fork, the OpenOffice.org community has taken a pragmatic view of Oracle's intentions, and has offered Oracle a way to participate and profit from OpenOffice's continued development as a community project. A project which will put more trust in the initiative of its developers and collaborators, in the hope that this leads to better and faster development and greater responsiveness to user issues.
Why a fork?
Forks usually happen because circumstances change, because personal, behavioural or technical philosophies collide, or because developers want to experiment or take the software in a different direction.
The ability to fork and rescue an ailing project is often touted as one of the big advantages of free and open source software. Whereas a proprietary software package may die if its parent company is bought or sold or goes out of business, a free software package will live on as long as somebody, somewhere, is willing to support its development. This is precisely the slot into which OpenOffice.org has fallen because of the uncertain nature of Oracle's commitment to OpenOffice development.
A similar fate has befallen a number of projects that were administered by Sun Microsystems, and are now owned by Oracle. Examples include MariaDB and Drizzle, which are well known forks of MySQL, Forgerock's OpenAM, IcedTea, and Illumos OpenIndiana, which has become the great hope for the OpenSolaris community.
Successful forks generally don't happen for trivial reasons. Some forks, such as Firefox, have had the blessing of the parent organisation, and have gone on to replace the parent product. In user terms LibreOffice may be the biggest fork ever of a free software project - its success or failure will be a test of the resolve of contributors, sponsors and developers.
An unusual aspect of the LibreOffice fork is that by most measurements OpenOffice.org has been a success. There is no easy way to estimate the number of users, as the software is available from any number of sources. In the past the project has attempted a market share analysis, and has kept a record of major deployments. Downloads have run into the hundreds of millions.
Despite this, the decision to fork the project has been taken for positive reasons. A freeing of the code from the chains of a company with a proprietary interest in the marketing and development of the product is an opportunity for growth and development. As the Linux kernel project has demonstrated, a free software project, where the code belongs to no-one, attracts more developers. Decisions are made collaboratively, and terms for contribution are well-defined and clear. The greater the number of individual and corporate developers the greater the pool of ideas there are to work from and the faster the project grows.
Significantly, Chris DiBona, Open Source Programs Manager at Google, notes that: "Having a level playing field for all contributors is fundamental in creating a broad and active community around an open source software project." LibreOffice will differ significantly from OpenOffice in that the developers are freed from an overarching and ultimately stifling bureaucracy, and are able to express themselves freely.
No success like failure
Various factors have contributed to the success of OO.o. Cost and over reliance on single vendor solutions, the new found respectability of Linux and open source, and the furore surrounding MS-OOXML have all played their part in raising the profile of the software. OpenOffice.org has been an undoubted thorn in the side of Microsoft, and has been a valuable adjunct to Sun's software portfolio. But despite this, the success of OpenOffice.org has never matched its initial promise or the expectations of its contributors.
The release of the code to the community was expected to propel OpenOffice.org into a faster cycle of development and renewal, but this hasn't happened. Instead, there have been continuous rumours of dissent from developers about the lack of transparency in the development process, and murmurings from users about the slow response to bug reports. OpenOffice.org is a good middle of the road office suite which happens to be free and open source, but its users expected more. Historically, critics have laid the source of OpenOffice.org's shortcomings at Sun's door, blaming slow and cumbersome feedback procedures.
Moreover, as Meeks reported back in 2008 "In a healthy project we would expect to see a large number of volunteer developers involved, in addition - we would expect to see a large number of peer companies contributing to the common code pool; we do not see this in OpenOffice.org. Indeed, quite the opposite we appear to have the lowest number of active developers on OO.o since records began."
Riding the audit trail
Although OO.o has always garnered complementary reviews, partly because of the crying need for an alternative to Microsoft Office, there have also been complaints about the slow or non-existent response to bug reports and fixes.
Sun's take on this was that, unlike the better known free software projects, an office suite can claim to have much greater reliance on, and vulnerability to, quality assurance (QA) issues, affecting usability, consistency and reliability. This, for Sun developers, was the key issue, as a French contributor, Charles-H. Schulz explained.
"Since we're developing an end-user software suite we cannot tolerate leaving our software at a low level of quality. Of course, there are always bugs and we have ramped up our QA teams and resources significantly over time. QA gets to register the builds, test them at various levels according to the development, localisation and QA processes. It also approves and decides whether the builds should be released or not. QA and the QA project play a central role in our development and release process."
The community's view is that Sun imposed a proprietary development logic onto a free software project, nullifying the advantages of open source development, and creating a philosophical impasse. Those developers who have worked on heavily audited government projects will recognise the paradox - audit trails which are there to provide quality assurance often get in the way of developing quality code, which is why the best code in commercial environments often comes out of skunkworks projects - as was the case with James Gosling and Java.
Uncompromisingly free software
Unfortunately some of the criticisms of OpenOffice.org and the opacity of the project have been lost or wrongly dismissed because the most vocal and articulate critics have sometimes been employees of Novell, and their criticisms have tended to be conflated with other issues.
The view of the great majority of the OpenOffice.org / LibreOffice developer community is that OpenOffice.org should be driven by its community of users and developers. Successful community led projects tend to be independent, democratic, noisy, discursive and chaotic, but are creative and successful because they promote developer initiative and attract a greater number of developers.
LibreOffice will be uncompromisingly free software, and as one developer observes, "it is hard to think of anyone of any note in the community that isn't involved," including developers from Red Hat and Debian. The hope is that OpenOffice / Libreoffice "will go where people want it to go, because it hasn't been going where people want it to. Initially the focus will be on cleaning up the code, adding polish and increasing usability." In the longer term, the project will be much more ambitious.
If LibreOffice takes off, which it has every chance of doing, the test for the developers will be to prove that a distributed free software development model not only gives the developers greater freedom and initiative, but also produces results.