Lessons learned from LibreOffice community success

LibreOffice community achievements

Image by : 

opensource.com

Recently the LibreOffice project released version 5.0 of their cross-platform office suite. The new release brings together a raft of features for a comprehensive office suite that runs across Linux, Windows, Mac, and increasingly the mobile space.

Saying LibreOffice or OpenOffice to people can lead to interesting reactions. For some people, LibreOffice is the darling of the open source world, and for others, it is a crappy Microsoft Office alternative that they look down on.

I believe that LibreOffice plays an important function in the world, and one that spans beyond the mere function of an office suite. Before we get to that though, I think looking back through the tremendous journey that led to the LibreOffice project we know today is important.

Going back in time

The story begins back in 1985 when Marco Börries created StarWriter for the Zilog Z80. He later formed StarDivision and started building what we now consider to be a modern office suite. The fruits of this effort was StarOffice, which featured a word processor, spreadsheet, presentations, database, drawing, formula, and other tools.

Back in the early days of Linux, StarOffice was the only serious office suite available for the burgeoning operating system. Sure, StarOffice was clunky and ugly, but it worked and filled an important role for new Linux users. I will never forget being able to create a poster for my Linux user group and print it out, which felt like a big step forward for Linux.

In 1999, Sun bought StarDivision for $73.5 million, and according to the press, buying the company was cheaper than buying Microsoft Office licenses for Sun employees. This naturally came with a key benefit: Sun now owned an office suite.

With Sun getting deeper and deeper into open source, the company open sourced StarOffice in 2000 and it became the OpenOffice.org project. At first this was primarily a code dump, but then a community started forming around OpenOffice.org and tried to evolve into a true open source community. Soon, because I was in close contact with OpenOffice.org and Sun community members back then, I saw things start to get complicated.

Tough times

Although we owe a debt of gratitude to Sun for open sourcing StarOffice, that effort involved releasing a massive, gnarly ball of monolithic code that would have put off even the most ardent of programmers. The people who joined the OpenOffice.org project in those early days took on the complicated, unrewarding, and mentally taxing job of understanding the spaghetti codebase and making sense of it for future development. They really were true heroes of open source.

Ximian was one of the companies involved with the project. Michael Meeks, a core member of the OpenOffice.org project, created a special patch-set called ooo-build, which made managing the codebase on Linux easier. This resulted in a special software package called go-ooo, which included some features not in the upstream OpenOffice.org codebase.

Around this time, Sun was contributing less code to OpenOffice.org, presumably as financial and product goals shifted. To make matters worse, the stewards of OpenOffice.org at Sun also were becoming less responsive to outside contributions. This created an environment in which Michael Meeks and other developers were doing hard work to create an office suite the open source world could be proud of, but that effort was falling on somewhat deaf ears upstream.

I remember this time vividly. Michael Meeks was doing everything that he could to inspire and encourage Sun to manage OpenOffice.org in a way that was more in line with an open source project. I even spent time with Michael trying to bridge the relationship with key members at Sun, and trying to get Canonical behind this work. Sadly, much of these efforts didn't bear much fruit. To be fair, I was unaware of much of the internal considerations going on at Sun, so their reluctance to engage may have also been a result of other forces, such as external management groups or constrained engineering resources.

In early 2010, Oracle acquired Sun. This sent shock waves throughout the open source world and may have been the straw that broke the camel's back. Later that year, The Document Foundation was announced as a new host for a new derivative of OpenOffice.org called LibreOffice. This new project would be the open source project that Meeks and company had lobbied for for so long.

New era

Since those early days, the LibreOffice project has gone from strength to strength. That huge, monolithic codebase has been modularized, updated, and refined. The cross-platform support has been expanded, new features added, cruft removed, and a revised sense of simplicity and usability has been applied. In addition to this, a new community was born, developer summits and conferences were founded, sponsors sourced, and sub-communities—such as documentation writers, translators, artists, designers, and more—created.

To look at LibreOffice today and compare it to Microsoft Office can be tempting. Sure, LibreOffice does not provide the same level of features and finesse Microsoft's suite may boast, but when I think of the before and after vanity shots of the suite back in 1999 and today, what the community has accomplished is phenomenal. Developing LibreOffice has been hard, technically challenging, and at times demotivating work, and contributors' efforts can be seen by millions of users across the world.

More than a suite

In addition to the tremendous technical and community accomplishments of LibreOffice, the project plays a big role beyond the open source space. We are experiencing a tremendous community renaissance across the world. People are getting together to create, share, and collaborate in new and interesting ways. One thing I have learned during my career is that any mission or vision is possible when we have the right collection of tools, knowledge, and people. The tools piece is where LibreOffice fits in.

Back in the early days of Linux and open source, a core set of tools made much of what we have today possible. Those tools included gcc, make, binutils, and other pieces of the GNU system. Without those freely accessible tools, early developers wouldn't have had the nuts and bolts they needed to do great things.

Open source communities are not only about developing software. Communities are local groups, activism efforts, collaborative writing, data modeling, and more. As was the case with early open source projects, open tools and open, downloadable, hackable content is key. LibreOffice is providing the open tool that can inspire a generation to create open content in open formats.

For example, to help build coordinated local groups around the world, we should have a downloadable kit of materials groups can use to create posters, documents, name badges, stickers, and more. Providing the material is one thing, but providing the material in a format that can be used, edited, and customized with a free tool means that communities don't need to worry about funding a suite of proprietary office software.

A combination of open formats and open tools have led to the collaborative revolution we see today. Although looking at LibreOffice as merely a free Microsoft Office equivalent may be tempting, this line of thinking underestimates the incredible role it can play in the wider, community revolution outside of software development.

As I wrap up this column tonight, I will be toasting my friends in the LibreOffice project. You are the essence of what I love in open source: the kindness, expertise, and sense of community that makes it all so special. Thank you for your devotion and efforts.

Six
Degrees

This article is part of Jono Bacon's Six Degrees column, where he shares his thoughts and perspectives on culture, communities, and trends in open source.

20 Comments

archuser

How many people actively use libreoffice, is there any data ?

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
jonobacon

No idea, would love to know though. :-)

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
ic3d
Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Don Watkins

I really enjoyed reading your article. I started using StarOffice in 1997 and it was clunky and ugly but the only option for me at the time on a Linux system. I really grew to love OpenOffice.org and used it faithfully for over ten years until recently when I switched to LibreOffice. Both Openoffice.org and LibreOffice are good products and I prefer Writer to anything the Microsoft produces. I used OpenOffice to write papers in APA format for a grad program I was involved in four years ago and had no complaints from my professors most of whom received my work in electronic format.

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
sethkenlon

There was a fork of Open Office for a while called Neo Office. That, along with the usual mix of Audacity and Ffmpeg, was one of the very first open source applications that I somewhat-consciously started using before I switched over to a completely open source workflow. Open and Libre Office(s) are great projects; I really admire what they continue to accomplish.

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
PWW

What can MS Office do that LibreOffice can't? This is not a challenge, but a simple question - I am not really well acquainted with either, but I would like to know.

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Albin

MS Office probably has a larger base of better paid developers and enterprise specialists than Linux does. There is tremendous complexity in databases, spreadsheets, and document templates for presentation and corporate reporting, including macro and scripting not available in other products. Moreover, as the standard format for exchange and collaboration it lets companies, their clients, vendors and customers all exchange copies without garbling conversions.

Sure, LibreOffice is an exellent product that can do all or most of what many homes and small businesses need. And it can convert simple, repeat simple, MS Office documents fairly well. But everybody doesn't use it, and conversion of formats is very bad for any serious level of sophistication in the formatting. Send a reasonably complex LibreOffice spreadsheet, e.g. with a pivot table or macro, or a report with a table of contents or subject index, to a friend, customer, school teacher or schoolmate on a colloborative project and you and a) they are most likely using MS Office, and b) you're contribution becomes a format nuisance that converts badly or not at all..

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Don Watkins

Thanks for this link. I just shared it with my followers on Twitter. This clearly demonstrates the superiority of open source and of LibreOffice. I have used both MS Office for Mac and Windows and own both and have noticed the incompatibility issues too.

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
John Hornstein

What MS Office does that OpenOffice and LibreOffice do not, is to sprinkle its tools over numerous tabbed windows, so you cannot access them at the same time. This clever trick wastes a huge amount of the user's time, thereby keeping the user out of mischief. That is why I use OpenOffice and sometimes LibreOffice.

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
John Heard

Good story - thanks. I too thank the community, Michael, Miguel, and Nat during the time we were establishing the GNU based OpenOffice.org project alongside the GNOME Foundation.

We had big goals and like any big goals they are challenging and depend upon committed individuals. It is a great credit to everyone who has worked upon and been a user of OpenOffice and LibreOffice that it continues fifteen years later. I know it has made a difference - more than is generally apparent.

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Ehud Gavron

Interesting writeup that details not only some of the things we knew (Oracle was the last straw) but some we didn't... such as the coders' frustration with Sun and inability to be able to contribute upstream.

I last used a proprietary OS in 2006 and things have been getting easier this past decade. LibreOffice certainly helped make it so.

Ehud Gavron
Tucson AZ

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
subvertigo

I believe contribution was possible, but there were conditions: your contribution had to be signed over so Sun could license it under the StarOffice as well, and you had to have a Sun developer sponsor/actually commit the feature or patch.
https://www.openoffice.org/licenses/sca.pdf

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Rikki Endsley

I used OpenOffice then switched to LibreOffice years ago. Love the office suite - I've used it on a Mac and my Linux laptops. Huge thanks to the LibreOffice community for all their energy and efforts!

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
bbehrens

I really don't know what I'd do without the LibreOffice community and all its efforts. Many thanks—and congratulations!

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
LS

I got to know Linux and OpenOffice during university, but never paid much attention to them, but moved to OpenOffice when I had to write my bachelor's thesis because MS Equation Editor was an absolute crap, while OO's was absolutely amazing and powerful. After that, MS Office was gone for me, and it took a few more years to grow tired of Windows for various reasons and deciding to step up and move to Linux. It was mostly because it was a valuable skill for my IT professional career, but in the end I really loved it, the principles and the idea of freedom and a community around it. Nowadays, I use it for everything I need of an office suite, and never looked back!

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Adrian Wilkins

The main stumbler for me of LibreOffice is compatibility with MS Office.

This of course, is a reason to look down on MS Office rather than LibreOffice. MS Office isn't really even terribly compatible with prior versions of itself.

But you can't use LibreOffice in any business setting. You will inevitably have to exchange files with an MS Office user, and one end or the other will inevitably choke on something.

Word / Writer documents are just about usable but there will be a large number of horrible formatting inconsistencies *at best*. At worst, unusable mangling of the headers and footers etc occurs.

For spreadsheets, just forget it. MS Office doesn't even acknowledge the presence of formulas in LibreOffice sheets - even saved in MS Office formats - most of the time.

Again, this is not really LibreOffice's fault. The relative lengths and complexities of the ODF and MOO-XML standards reveal that LibreOffice formats are by and large has a well thought out structure and that MS Office documents are a horrific hodgepodge of legacy C structs, later serialized to XML in order to check a box on some government form that says "the document must be XML because XML means 'open'. "

But that horrific hodgepodge is the de-facto standard. And no open-source project has a hope in hell of producing a program compatible with it. Not even the MS Office team could produce a program compatible with it, if you wiped the Office source code tomorrow.

I have seriously considered writing Markdown parsers in VBA in order to generate Word documents from Markdown *inside* Word, because while VBA is horrible, Office formats are worse - you have an odd-on chance of generating a reasonable MS Word document, as long as you are using MS Word. Nothing else has a chance of doing it "right", Pandoc makes a real hash of it (again, this is Office's fault, not Pandoc's).

Vote up!
1
Vote down!
0
John Hornstein

OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both pretty capable, but do have a few fixable defects.
The defect having the widest impact is that there does not seem to be a way of turning off the features that guess what the user wants to do. I have looked in vain for a way to turn off the automatic bulleting and automatic table features. I want to do these my own way, without 'help'.
The defects having narrower impact all pertain to the equation editor, which I use a lot. (1) There seems to be no way of copying part of one equation box and pasting it into another. (2) Expressions used in quantum mechanics are a major part of my activity. But the equation editor provides no way of writing < %phi | %psi> .

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Jen Wike Huger

Awesome write up -- thanks for the background and inspirational call to toast LibreOffice!

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0
Rocher881

I use openoffice and libreoffice. Openoffice extensions really need updates because it takes like years to respond but the function part is better than microsoft office. I'm new to Libre Office and I like it, except that I still need time to get to know this software.

Vote up!
0
Vote down!
0