LibreOffice: A history of document freedom

The Document Foundation estimates 1,000 contributors are active on a weekly basis.
343 readers like this
343 readers like this

A recent tweet from LibreOffice took me back more than two decades to my first encounter with the software.

It wasn't called LibreOffice back then—it was called StarOffice 3.1, and it was part of my first really successful Linux install on Red Hat 6.1. Before that, I had used a variety of word processors on a variety of operating systems. My go-to word processor had been Microsoft Word. Word seemed like a dream come true—it highlighted misspelled words and underlined grammatically incorrect phrases. StarWriter wasn't quite the equivalent of Word, but it (and StarOffice's other components) were all adequate and free. I was impressed. And, over time, it became an important part of my career as a student and an educator.

LibreOffice's history

My reminiscing led me to reach out to the Document Foundation, which governs LibreOffice, to learn more about the history of this open source productivity software.

The Document Foundation's team told me that "StarWriter, the ancestor of the LibreOffice suite, was developed as proprietary software by Marco Börries, a German student, to write his high school final thesis." He formed a company called Star Division to develop the software.

In 1999, Sun Microsystems bought Star Division for $73.5 million, changed the software's name to, and released the code as open source. Anyone could download the office suite at no charge for personal use. The Document Foundation told me, "For almost 10 years, the software was developed under Sun stewardship, from version 1.0 to version 3.2. It started with a dual license—LGPL and the proprietary SISSL (Sun Industry Standard Software License)—but it evolved to pure LGPL from version 2.0."

In 2009, Oracle purchased Sun Microsystems and there was some concern about what would happen to OpenOffice. The Document Foundation forked the project, and it became LibreOffice in 2010. In 2011, Oracle decided to stop developing OpenOffice and passed the project off to the Apache Foundation. The Document Foundation gathered over 95% of the previous OpenOffice community around the newly independent and community-led project. With their support, LibreOffice continues to evolve, improve, and thrive.

How I came to love LibreOffice

While all this was going on, I continued to use and explore Linux. I discovered I could also download and install the application on Microsoft Windows. As a teacher, I really appreciated this, because many of our school's students couldn't afford to buy their own copies of Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.

As the software continued evolving, I found it offered a serious alternative to proprietary software. OpenOffice Writer included features that Microsoft Word didn't—like being able to save a file in PDF format. As our school's webmaster, the ability to easily create and upload PDFs to our website made OpenOffice a no-brainer. I found myself moving away from Word and using OpenOffice more and more.

Our technology staff began to burn copies of OpenOffice onto CDs and distribute them to students. At one point, OpenOffice 2.0 became part of our default Windows install image for all teacher and student workstations. There was some pushback on that (so we had to retreat on the teacher workstations), but we continued to recommend and support OpenOffice for student use.

In 2009, I enrolled in graduate school and decided to use OpenOffice for all of my papers and projects. My colleagues and teachers had no idea that I wasn't using the proprietary office suite that they were using. I kept using OpenOffice throughout graduate school and eventually made the switch to LibreOffice, which I'm still using today.

Document freedom

There are many ways OpenOffice/LibreOffice have shown the world the advantages of open source over proprietary development—especially by standardizing on the Open Document Format (ODF). ODF is "the only true standard format available today for office documents," says the Document Foundation team. Unlike proprietary formats, "any version of LibreOffice will write the same document in the same way," which enables users to protect ownership of their documents and avoid vendor lock-in.

LibreOffice can open a wide variety of document types thanks to the volunteer work of developers at the Document Liberation Project. Users don't need Microsoft Office to open .doc, .docx, .ppt, .pptx, .xls, or .xlsx files. It can import Apple's Keynote, Pages, and Numbers. It can also read old Microsoft Works, WordPerfect, and Lotus 1-2-3 files.

This type of interoperability isn't just about freedom, it also has economic benefits. A study from the US National Institute of Standards and Technology shows that lack of interoperability can cost an organization up to $1 billion per year. Unfortunately, disinterest by governments, schools, and enterprises, as well as lack of transparency by vendors, results in large, unnecessary expenditures tied up in non-standard document formats.

A vibrant community

LibreOffice is available in more than 110 languages, reaching "the largest number of individuals in their native language. In some cases, this language is representative of a language minority, like Guarani in South America, which is spoken by many in Paraguay and regions of Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil," says the Document Foundation.

The Document Foundation estimates that there are 200 million active LibreOffice users worldwide; approximately 25% are students and 10% are Linux users, who usually find LibreOffice part of their preferred distribution.

Making the code open source fostered the development of an independent, worldwide community based on meritocratic principles. The community spans six continents and includes people from all over the world. The Document Foundation estimates 1,000 contributors are active on at least a weekly basis, supported by about 4,000 people who are called upon when needed. It also garners support from the enterprises who deploy the software on a large scale, companies on the Document Foundation's advisory board, and a large number of individual donors to the foundation.

The Document Foundation is always looking for new members to join the community, including software developers, quality assurance managers, user interface designers, documentation writers, language translators, and more. For more on how you can help, visit the Get Involved section of LibreOffice's website. You can also follow LibreOffice on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, and Reddit.

Educator, entrepreneur, open source advocate, life long learner, Python teacher. M.A. in Educational Psychology, MSED in Educational Leadership, Linux system administrator, Follow me at @Don_Watkins .


For me, LibreOffice is not only a viable alternative to Microsoft, but clearly the better application with regard to usability, and it has always been, starting with StarWriter which already used to be the better word processor compared to Microsoft Word back in its time (IIRC, I started with StarWriter 2.0 on OS/2).

That said, it is was a major backlash to my personal 'document freedom' when both LibreOffice and, some time later, OpenOffice stopped supporting their own legacy file formats, first for saving, then for opening, too, i.e. SDW, SDC and the other binary formats. Which is why I still have to keep a working StarOffice 5.2 (dating back to 2000) around (fortunately, that is quite easy with Wine, actually easier than on a current Windows system).

And lately there have been some concessions to the Microsoft way of doing things which I find somewhat annoying – like the sticky selection in spreadsheet cut/copy/paste which enforces an additional keypress, which cannot disabled in the options, either.

And while I'm therefore not completely convinced that 2018's LibreOffice development is still perfectly on track, I'm still more than happy to have the same full-fledged office suite on Linux as the one I had been using while I still was running Windows on my systems.

Hi, why you have doubts about LibreOffice development? We have a healthy community of devs, with an average of 80 contributor's per month and over 250 on a yearly basis.

In reply to by Etc Etera (not verified)

No doubts that there is development, just about it always taking the right direction. As I said, I didn't like everything that changed lately. More specifically, I don't think introducing features which reduce usability, probably just because that's how Microsoft has been doing it all the time and many people are used to it, is a good idea – at least there should be an option to disable it.

In reply to by Italo Vignoli (not verified)

Yep, been there since StarOffice and used practically every version.
Only sad thing is losing the brand, because the name was great and well known.

The biggest letdown is with LibreOffice 6. The great product they had with LibreOffice Ver. 4xx/5xx is gone. It is slow and sluggish, the interface has changed and some fonts previously available in LO 4/5 are gone in LO 6. It took me about 20 min. the other day to figure out how to add cells in LO Calc. Is it progress when you keep changing the interface, like MS Ofiice has done over and over? No, absolutely not!

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