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06 October 2011, 20:15

LibreOffice – a dive into the unknown

by Richard Hillesley

The Document Foundation (TDF) and LibreOffice turned one year old last month, and it has been a good year. LibreOffice was a dive into the unknown, and an opportunity to prove what the community already knew: that a chance to swim free could only bring positive results.

LibreOffice has come alive, with busy mailing lists, vibrant IRC channels, and a growing community which provides a healthy contrast to the ups and downs of the years. LibreOffice claims "more developers with commits in the first year than the project managed in its first decade". 25 per cent of the commits have come from community members, and 45 per cent from Red Hat and SUSE. Other contributors have included Canonical, Bobiciel, CodeThink, Lanedo, SIL, and Tata Consultancy Services.

Just as importantly, LibreOffice claims to be more feature complete, faster and more reliable than its predecessor, and claims 25 million users in its first year. Many of these are Linux users, but they also include commercial successes such as a hospital workforce of 25,000 in Denmark.

"The group of hospitals is phasing out a proprietary alternative, 'for long term strategic reasons'", it was reported, "which at the same time saves the group some 40 million Kroners worth of proprietary licences. The ditching of the proprietary alternative is a consequence of the group's move to virtual desktops, allowing staff members to log in on any PC or thin client. The group found that deploying this new desktop infrastructure would 'trigger unacceptably high costs' for proprietary office licences."

The move to LibreOffice is claimed to be "Europe's second largest migration project involving public administrations using an open source office suite."

No news is good news

The LibreOffice fork didn't come out of nowhere. The Document Foundation (TDF) was launched as an independent community-driven entity in September 2010 to revive the development of, which had been stifled by years of bureaucracy from Sun and neglect by Oracle. had belonged to Sun Microsystems. Oracle purchased Sun, and didn't fit comfortably in the Oracle firmament. The crunch came at the Oracle OpenOffice conference in September 2010 in Budapest where the community gathered to hear the news of Oracle's future plans for As one of the developers put it at the time: "The news from the Oracle OpenOffice conference was that there was no news."

TDF was launched, and Oracle was asked to join and "donate the brand the community has grown during the past ten years". If Oracle had given a positive response LibreOffice would have reverted to the moniker, and TDF would have become the foundation that Sun had promised ten years earlier.

LibreOffice wasn't so much a fork, as an attempt to revitalise as a community driven project. Oracle declined the opportunity to join, and a month later those members of the OpenOffice community who had identified themselves with The Document Foundation were expelled from the OO.o Community Council.

Who owns the process?

Oracle's indifference hadn't been the only point of failure for Distributed open source software development works partly because it strips away bureaucracy and control, and allows developers to get on with the work at hand. Better results are achieved if projects are overseen with a light touch and the developers are allowed to use their initiative, but had always been a tightly controlled project.

Sun had bought StarDivision in August 1999 because it was cheaper to buy a company than to buy Microsoft licences for its 42,000 employees. Office software wasn't an integral part of Sun's business, and it made sense to release the code to the community as a stimulus to further development. Sun promised an independent foundation, but for whatever reason, didn't fulfil the pledge. The code was "open source" but development was micro-managed by Sun, and a proprietary logic was imposed on the project; this negated many of the advantages of the free software development process and created a philosophical impasse which became more apparent as time went on.

The complaint from developers was that failed to attract and keep third-party developers, due to "a half-hearted open-source strategy that was not truly 'Open'" and that lacked transparency. was successful and "good enough", but didn't live up to its potential and promise. The project didn't exhibit the characteristic flow and energy of a healthy open source project. Bug fixes took months and years to appear, and process seemed to take precedence over the code. Developers left the project and weren't replaced. By 2008 it was reported that OO.o had "the lowest number of active developers since records began".

Symptomatic of the bureaucracy at the heart of the project was the insistence on copyright assignment, as Kohei Yoshida related in his history of the Calc solver code: "If Sun insists on rewriting all the work I've already done, just to ensure that they own all the code in OO.o, even though it is legally permissible to integrate my code under a pure LGPL license as an external component, then perhaps I need to re-think my relationship with the project."

Radek Doulik and Caolan McNamara had a similar experience with their code for Gstreamer integration. The code was offered to Sun "either under the LGPLv3 (preferred), or with assigned copyright and a liberal license (less preferred)", and was rejected because it didn't fit Sun's terms. Subsequently, Oracle/Sun rewrote the code and announced Gstreamer integration as a new feature in July last year, four years after the functionality had first been made available to the project.

The net effect was that the contributors were disenchanted, and progress on was slow. was failing to capitalise on its considerable successes, and developers were falling away. Fridich Strba, a long term contributor, summed up the feelings of many in the community when he wrote: "If I wanted to do paperwork in my spare time, I would volunteer at the local government office."

Next: A leap in the dark

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