In early 2009, OpenOffice.org was the main competitor to Microsoft Office in the individual office productivity suites market. The popular open source office suite's community looked forward to a November conference in Orvieto, Italy. Things were going well, and the future looked bright.
And then, in April of that year, Oracle announced its plans to acquire Sun Microsystems.
Personally, I knew it was bad news for OpenOffice.Org. Oracle had no interest in the open source suite, and I felt confident it would abandon the project. Of course, I hoped to be proved wrong at the upcoming conference. Instead, a single representative from Oracle, with no budget to speak of, arrived in Orvieto and talked vaguely about monetization and re-branding. I felt that my worst fears were confirmed, and my fellow community members agreed.
The community returned home from Orvieto that year and resolved to take action. The time had finally come to turn into reality what the OpenOffice.Org project had promised. We were determined to create an independent foundation to manage the project's assets and promote the development of the suite under the umbrella of the community. OpenOffice.org would no longer belong to a company but to its users and individual contributors.
Building the foundation
At the time, the OpenOffice.org project had a presence on every continent, with language communities helping to localize and promote it. The four most important:
- German: The software was born in Germany, and StarDivision was based in Hamburg, so there was a natural link between the group of developers and German-speaking supporters.
- French: The government supported the open source software.
- Italian: The group to which I belonged.
At the beginning of 2010, at the initiative of the French and German language communities, the most active volunteers—together with some independent and SUSE developers—started working on a fork project. The aim was to launch an alternative project involving both the global community and the companies invested in OpenOffice.org.
I have over 30 years of experience working in international business and consultancy agencies. The project brought me in to manage the marketing and communication strategy.
In the months that followed, activity became increasingly hectic. There was a weekly teleconference meeting, as the news coming in from Star Division (the department responsible for OpenOffice.org) was increasingly negative.
Even with the dissolution of OpenOffice.org seemingly imminent, a conference in Budapest was confirmed by the publication of a CFP (Call for Papers). Of course, the fork project members also did nothing different from previous years. They presented their talk proposals and made travel plans.
A safe place for documents
At the beginning of the summer, the fork was almost ready. Our group met in Budapest to gauge the situation from the OpenOffice.org side and for a first face-to-face organizational meeting.
The Budapest conference ran smoothly, with meetings, keynotes, and technical sessions taking place over the three-day event. Everything seemed more or less normal.
Everything was not normal.
Some attendees were a little suspicious when several leading figures failed to attend the conference's main social event, an overnight cruise on the Danube. We didn't participate in this event because we were meeting in a restaurant to discuss the final details of a new foundation. There was a lot to get right. We had to determine an announcement date and the composition of the Steering Committee that would coordinate the tasks required to bring the foundation to life.
The three weeks between the conference and the announcement of LibreOffice were hectic. I prepared the launch strategy and the text of the press release. The developers prepared the software. The application's name had just been decided a few days earlier during a teleconference (which I'd joined from Grosseto, where I was attending the Italian open source software community meeting).
On September 28, 2010, I distributed the press release announcing The Document Foundation and LibreOffice to a global mailing list of about 250 journalists, which I painstakingly put together using input from the public relations agencies where I worked.
Here is the release:
The community of volunteers developing and promoting OpenOffice.Org announces an independent foundation to drive the further growth of the project. The foundation will be the cornerstone of a new ecosystem where individuals and organisations can contribute to and benefit from the availability of a truly free office suite. It will generate increased competition and choice for the benefit of customers and drive innovation in the office suite market. From now on the OpenOffice.Org community will be known as The Document Foundation.
We invited Oracle to become a member of the foundation and donate the brand the community had grown during the previous ten years. Pending the decision, we chose the brand LibreOffice for the software going forward.
Reactions to the announcement from the press were very positive. On the other hand, companies and analysts tended to be suspicious of an office suite governed by a community, an entity they never fully understood because of its flat, meritocratic organization.
In the two weeks following the announcement, 80 new developers joined the project, disproving the predictions of those who considered it unrealistic to launch a fork relying only on SUSE and Red Hat developers. Unsurprisingly, most of the language communities switched to LibreOffice.
LibreOffice is built from the source code of OpenOffice.org. The new functionalities are integrated in the source code of Go-OO and not on OOo.
For this reason, the first version of LibreOffice—announced on January 25, 2011—was 3.3 to maintain consistency with OpenOffice.org. This was useful for users who had migrated to the new suite since the first version. The software was still a little immature due to significant technical debt that had to be accounted for. This caused problems and instability that would largely be corrected through code cleaning and refactoring throughout the 3.x and 4.x versions. By versions 5.x and 6.x, the source code was considered stable, which allowed the user interface to be improved and the development of mobile and cloud versions.
In the spring of 2011, Oracle transferred the OpenOffice.org source code to the Apache Software Foundation. The project lasted for three years. The last new version was nearly a decade ago.
The future is open
The formation process of The Document Foundation ended in early 2012, with registration by the Berlin authorities on February 17, 2012. This was a lengthy process because the founders wanted volunteer members of the project also to be members of the foundation based on contributions. This detail hadn't been foreseen for foundations under German law, so it required several revisions of statutes to comply with this condition.
The foundation's first two activities were the membership committee's election. This is the structure that decides on the transition from mere volunteer to member of The Document Foundation on the basis of contributions. There are five members and three deputies. Finally, there's a Board of Directors, which steers the foundation administratively and strategically, consisting of seven members and three deputies.
At the end of 2012, the foundation hired its first employee. This employee was Florian Effenberger, who was later promoted to executive director. Today, the team has a dozen members who take care of day-to-day activities such as coordinating projects, administration, network infrastructure management, software releases, mentoring of new developers, coordination of quality assurance, user interface evolution, and marketing and communications.
Right now, the foundation is looking for developers to handle tasks that do not fit the objectives of enterprise customers, such as RTL language management and accessibility. These features aren't developed by the companies in the LibreOffice ecosystem, which offer them feature development services, Level 3 support, and Long Term Support versions of the software optimized for enterprise needs.
More than 12 years after the announcement of LibreOffice and The Document Foundation, we can say that we have achieved our goal of developing an independent free and open source (FOSS) project. Our project is based on an extended community of individual volunteers and companies contributing according to their abilities. These participants help create the unmatched free office suite and support open standards by adopting and evolving the only true standard office document format on the market (Open Document Format, or ODF) while also ensuring excellent compatibility with the proprietary OOXML format.
The sustainability of this model is a day-to-day problem. There's severe competition from big tech firms. We're always searching for a balance between those who would like everything to be cost-free and those who would like each user to contribute according to their ability. No matter what, though, LibreOffice is an open source office suite, providing added value above and beyond its competition.
Try LibreOffice. Donate. Support it at home and work. Tell your friends about it. LibreOffice is the open source office solution that ensures you always have access to your data and control over your creativity.