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With a focus on open source and digital rights, Simon is a director of the UK's Open Rights Group and president of the Open Source Initiative. He is also managing director of UK consulting firm Meshed Insights Ltd.

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LibreOffice Is One

Once framed as an impetuous fork, LibreOffice has become the standard-bearer for the former OpenOffice community.

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Once in the mists of time, I was the head of open source at Sun Microsystems. One of my chief delights in that role was the OpenOffice.org project. I attended the Open Source Convention (OSCON) in Monterey, California in 2000 where the project was created out of a product Sun had acquired the previous year, StarOffice. I watched as it grew in polish and capability. I also helped as it submitted its ideas to the OASIS standards group for an "Open Office Document Format", a project that evolved into ODF and changed the world of enterprise document handling.

During that launch, the head of the product group promised the OSCON audience that Sun would soon turn OpenOffice.org over to a non-profit foundation. As each year passed, the community that grew around the project patiently waited for Sun to deliver on its promise. For various business reasons, it never happened, despite intensive lobbying inside Sun.

By the time I took over as chief open source officer in 2005, a clear leadership had emerged for the non-Sun-employee community at OpenOffice.org, and one of my annual tasks became to discuss with them the future of the project and try to advance the cause of community control for the project sufficiently internally to discourage a fork from happening. I did this at least three times in the years up to 2009. I left formal involvement in the project in 2010 when I left Sun on its closing day in the UK.

The Fork

After the Oracle acquisition of Sun, those same people finally decided things were not going to improve any further and they took the step they'd been preparing for years. In September 2010  The Document Foundation (TDF) was formed and a fork of OpenOffice.org called "LibreOffice" was established.  While I spent plenty of time talking to the founders, I was not involved in setting it up and remained outside its organisation until I was graciously granted Membership in the middle of this year.

LibreOffice drew support from a significant part of the global OpenOffice.org community (with some notable exceptions, some because of personality issues). It also attracted the key Linux vendors, and a pragmatic yet strong core team developed. Novell shut down their Go-OO fork, contributing their build system and work-to-date and committing their development team. Red Hat and Canonical both joined in. Most notably, a large number of individual developers decided to give LibreOffice a try and an extensive community grew from the "Easy Hack" beginners tasks.

There were certainly detractors (some even derided those early volunteers for making small contributions), and Oracle refused to have anything to do with the new project. But the LibreOffice community chose to ignore criticism and just focus on the code, setting an ambitious monthly release schedule and initially focussing on cleaning up the code and making development easier.

Had the Apache project that IBM and Oracle decided to establish over this summer been started last year instead of this, there is every chance that TDF and LibreOffice might not have happened. But by the time the project was started a few months ago, LibreOffice already had so much momentum that when the new Apache project started, it was effectively an attempted fork of the community, even if it did bear the OpenOffice name that I and so many people globally respect and have spent a decade making famous.

One Year On

After a year of work, the extensive global LibreOffice community is now showing signs of the strength and maturity the open source world needs. Monthly releases by a diverse core of developers; plenty of new volunteers arriving; open Board elections in progress; incorporation finally near after many delays; an international conference coming up next week (see you there?), and more. Most desktop GNU/Linux users now have LibreOffice installed by default. The Document Foundation is succeeding in all the ways its various detractors a year ago said it would fail. They have even won two awards.

I've spent an interesting summer attempting to get involved in both the TDF and Apache projects as a simple volunteer. The work with TDF and LibreOffice has been the most fruitful, and I'm pleased to now be helping as the "Elections Officer", running the Board elections so that the people who actually deserve to stand for the Board (not me!) can all do so without conflict of interest.
libreoffice-commitsbydeveloper.pnglibreoffice-commitsbycompany.png
I've noticed a recurrent criticism of LibreOffice - by people who are experienced enough to know better (and probably do) - has been that it's "just Novell trying to disrupt OpenOffice". Well, the best answer to that canard is to look at the graphs TDF put out in their press kit for the one year anniversary.

What these charts clearly show is a diversity of contribution. The top contributor is actually from Red Hat. A quarter of the code has come from the large and diverse group of individual contributors that's gathered at LibreOffice. I've seen the same effect in the governance as I've been spending time with TDF - a project that is run by and for its members, with no corporation in overall control of what happens. I expect that's the thing that makes the main critics so unhappy - no corporate "supervision" to avoid spontaneous things happening...

Birthday Present

I wish the Apache OpenOffice project success and hope richness emerges from it as it gradually gets to grips with the massive refactoring that is the natural consequence of the choices made for it.  I'm still hopeful of being able to contribute to it, and there are talented and committed people involved. But the free and open source software community simply can’t afford to wait until it starts delivering releases next year - after extensive work just to stand still.

Meanwhile, the LibreOffice project is emerging from its first year with great promise. It's far from perfect, of course.  New open source projects never are and volunteer projects lack the corporate resources to make it look otherwise. But I have no doubt that it's working.

I have been using LibreOffice ever since the project formed and have seen the quality soar and the feature set evolve delightfully over the year. If you are an OpenOffice user on Windows, Mac or GNU/Linux, LibreOffice is the natural successor and you should definitely try it.  Give yourself a birthday present from TDF and the LibreOffice community!


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