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A leap in the dark

TDF was launched to reawaken the spirit of the community, and fulfil the early promise of OpenOffice.org. The decision to break with Oracle and Sun was taken for positive reasons. Freeing the code was an opportunity for growth and development.

LibreOffice is copyleft, albeit weak copyleft, and is licensed under the LGPL and the MPL (Mozilla Public License), and there is no copyright assignment. The impediment of the restrictive bureaucracy of the past has been stripped away, and the community now operates like other free software projects. Where once a bug fix or a feature may have taken years to apply, contribution of code is now simple and fast – "no CWS, no hours of tagging, paperwork, no specification, no hassle" – and the code is owned by everyone and no-one.

A free software project where the code belongs to no-one attracts more contributors. 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 to work from and the faster the project grows.

The developers have found release, which means they contribute more, and stay around long enough to see how their contributions grow. The code is being shaken up and turned around. The new-found sense of freedom has imparted itself to the users and each release has brought considerable enhancements. The code is leaner and meaner, and new contributors have been rolling in since day one.

As Charles Schulz, a TDF Steering Committee member, tells it: "We have 136 members who have been nominated for their contributions to the project; we have some 270 developers and 270 localizers (although we always want to attract more), many of whom are also members; we have over 100 mailing lists, with over 15,000 subscribers, half of whom receive all our announcements; and there have been thousands of articles in the media worldwide."

Into the sunset

In a perfect world, LibreOffice would now have the field to itself, ready to take on all comers as the open source office suite of choice, but life isn't that simple. Whether in a fit of pique or a shrug of indifference, to get its own back on the Document Foundation, or to fulfil contractual obligations between Sun and IBM, Oracle relinquished its ownership of the OpenOffice.org code, brand and trademark, and donated them to the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) in May this year.

Inevitably, LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice are going to be seen as competitors. Apache OpenOffice picks up the OpenOffice brand and logo, and OpenOffice has ten years' worth of commercial visibility to fall back upon. OpenOffice is widely known and used, and most users of OpenOffice.org have no awareness of licensing or developer issues and will continue with the brand they know. Just as importantly, Apache OpenOffice has the significant backing of IBM, who will commit developers and marketing presence to pushing Apache OpenOffice. The OpenOffice brand will sell, and has many things going for it, but given the pace of development of LibreOffice, the Apache developers would be unwise to just pick up the reins and ride off into the sunset.

Openoffice.org has been more or less dormant since Oracle took over, and lacks many features LibreOffice inherited from go-oo.org. Where Apache has the brand and the backing of IBM, LibreOffice has inherited the OpenOffice.org community and the support of the Linux distros. The code has been cleaned up and the cruft removed. Performance has been enhanced, and LibreOffice is already two and a bit releases ahead of Apache OpenOffice and has opened up a considerable feature gap. This can be seen in the release notes for versions 3.3.1 and 3.4, or the features already completed for version 3.5.

The Apache developers have a lot of catching up to do, and have still to absorb the code from Lotus Symphony. Will Apache OpenOffice be more like OpenOffice.org or Symphony, and which is more desirable? While the LibreOffice developers are looking to be lean and mean, the Apache developers are set to go the opposite way, as they polish up Lotus Symphony's hefty but accomplished UI.

A working release of OpenOffice.org, re-licensed and complete, still looks a long way off. As Meeks noted 18 months ago: "One of Sun's arguments against including code they don't own in OpenOffice is that you can do anything you want in an extension, and you can find what you want in an online extension repository. The sad reality is they have tried this approach with some really quite good functionality for the presentation viewer but nobody knows it exists because it lives in the extension repository, and there are limits to what you can do with the repository. You have one million downloads of OO.o a month, and something like 10 thousand downloads a month from the repository. The offer of an extension repository is an offer of oblivion. There are a menagerie of inconsistent and incompatible licenses. Sun has packaged the MySQL client library which is normally GPL under the LGPLv3 license there, even though the source code is GPL."

Some extensions have been integrated into LibreOffice, but it is unclear how flexible the ASF's licensing policy will be towards an online extension repository for which it doesn't offer direct support.

Next: What's in a licence

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