LibreOffice: Is the Open Source Software Suite Here to Stay?LibreOffice: Is the Open Source Software Suite Here to Stay?
It's a new year, and LibreOffice -- the office productivity suite forked from OpenOffice.org -- is the new face of open source productivity software. Or is it? And more importantly, will it remain so as OpenOffice is reborn under the Apache Foundation?
January 4, 2012
It’s a new year, and LibreOffice — the office productivity suite forked from OpenOffice.org — is the new face of open source productivity software. Or is it? And more importantly, will it remain so as OpenOffice is reborn under the Apache Foundation? Here are some thoughts on what to expect on this front in 2012.
For those who don’t know the back story: In 2010, Oracle acquired Sun, which owned the OpenOffice.org project at the time. Concerned that Oracle might restrict or close the OpenOffice code, or sell the product for money, several groups formed the Document Foundation and forked OO into LibreOffice, an independent endeavor. Since then, most leading desktop Linux distributions have replaced OpenOffice with LibreOffice as their default office productivity suite.
Meanwhile, the fears of open source advocates were allayed in June 2011, when Oracle handed the OO code over to the Apache Foundation, ensuring that it would not, in fact, become proprietary. Now, Apache is in the process of regrouping and reorganizing the project, but for now development is kind of dormant and there has not been a new release in almost a year.
LibreOffice development, in contrast, has been hopping steadily along on a bi-annual release cycle. Since the project’s foundation, the developers — who include many veteran OpenOffice programmers — have not only maintained pace but also introduced a variety of new features not present in OpenOffice.
Office Present, Office Future
All the same, it seems to me that it’s a bit too early to affirm that the future of open source office software lies squarely in LibreOffice. While the situation seems pretty settled and stable right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if OpenOffice emerges resurgent to become a major LibreOffice competitor, upsetting the consensus that the community now enjoys on this front.
And that could potentially be a pretty bad thing for users of open source software. Traditionally, OpenOffice was one of the poster children of the open source world. Its rich features, lively development and impressive market share proved that open source projects could produce commercial quality software.
The cast of professional programmers paid to work on OpenOffice certainly helped its success. But also key was the community’s recognition of OpenOffice as the office platform of choice for the open source world. Unlike other free software niches, where a half dozen competing projects vie for support and resources, office productivity was one of the few points on the open source map where there was a clear leader. (Perhaps the only comparable niche is Web browsers, where Mozilla Firefox has long been the only serious cross platform, truly free open source offering.)
Too Many Choices
So now, because of a complicated — and pretty unpredictable — series of historical events, the open source channel faces the possibility that, should OpenOffice reemerge as an major office suite, users may face too many choices. And in this case, too much choice would be a bad thing, because it would spread finite resources in a critical niche too thinly.
Bad, that is, unless you’re watching from Redmond, Wash. Microsoft, for which Office has been a huge cash cow for years, has nothing to lose and everything to gain from competition between open source office products.
That, then, would be the irony of ironies: the world’s leading producer of closed source software profiting because the open source channel offers too many choices — all because of worries, unsubstantiated in the end, that Oracle would try to subvert the free software mission of the OpenOffice project. Fortunately, for the time being this all remains theoretical.
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