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28 September 2010, 11:05

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; 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 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 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 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 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, 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, 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

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 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 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, and the extent of Oracle's commitment, are uncertain.

The worry for the community has been that 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, 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 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.

Next: Why a fork?

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