LibreOffice 4.0: The big changes will be under the hood

LibreOffice 4.0: The big changes will be under the hood

Summary: There's a new major version of open-source LibreOffice office suite on its way, but developers, not end-users, will be the ones who will notice the real changes.


I use LibreOffice as my main office suite every day on Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. So, when I saw that there a new major release due in early February LibreOffice 4.0, I was excited. It turns out though that while there will be some improvements for users like myself, the significant changes will be for developers.

LibreOffice is changing its APIs and its licensing. (Credit: The Document Foundation)

As Charles-H. Schulz, one of LibreOffice's founders and a member of its parent group, The Document Foundation, explained, "In a sense, the 4.0 is actually an existential release, as it marks the departure from the past, the inclusion of new technologies and a more coherent and effective story on licensing. … The 4.0 is not just an update, it represents a deep change for LibreOffice and enables us to come closer to fulfilling our mission: to create the tools for knowldedge and the instruments of freedom.

Well that sounds interesting, but what is an "existential" release? It's really two things. First, there are going to be "Major changes in the API [application programming interface]." Taken together this will be " the most important API cleanup that has ever occurred since the beginning of… 1.x." LibreOffice is an OpenOffice fork.

Schulz and The Document Foundation hopes that this API change "will allow, with time, for the introduction of deeper changes and a more powerful API. But it also means that, while the API is becoming more powerful and easier to tap into, new possibilities for extension developers will rise, with its set of changes and incompatibilities. On a more abstract level, these changes also mark a more radical departure from the codebase, and it is now becoming quite difficult to just assume that because, Apache OpenOffice behave in one specific way LibreOffice would do just the same. Of course the API changes do not make the whole work themselves, but the work we started with the 3.4 branch is paying off: LibreOffice 4.0 is becoming a different animal, and that comes with its own distinct advantages while clearly showing our ability as a community to innovate and move forward."

In other words, LibreOffice is becoming more than just an OpenOffice fork, but an independent office suite in its own right. At the same time, OpenOffice has been struggling. OpenOffice makes no bones that "Volunteers [are] needed in all areas".

Besides tje API change, LibreOffice is moving to a new graphics stack. This is based on GtkBuilder, which builds interfaces from an XML user interface (UI) definition. The reasons for this change are to make it easier to create "new UI widgets, cleaner looks and new opportunities to handle new tools and improve our interface."

Besides the programming shifts, the second big change is that LibreOffice is also changing its licensing. While OpenOffice is moving to the Apache 2.0 license from the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 3.0, LibreOffice is taking a different course. Instead of using Apache 2, they'll be using a dual licensed approach with LGPL 3.0 and the Mozilla Public License (MPL) Version 2.0.

The Document Foundation is doing this for two reasons. First, it will make it easier to "incorporate any useful improvements" from Apache 2.0-licensed OpenOffice code into LibreOffice.

Second, they believe that the MPL licensing will provide "some advantages around attracting commercial vendors, distribution in both Apple and Microsoft app-stores, and as our Android and iPhone ports advance in tablets and mobile devices." In short, this is a move to help make future tablet versions of LibreOffice, due out in late 2013/early 2014 more compatible with Android, iOS and Windows Phone 8 app. store restrictions.

On Linux, however, LibreOffice will continue to be under the LPGLv3. "As the migration continues, and for the foreseeable future on free-software platforms we will continue to distribute our binaries under the LGPLv3 - in addition to the existing mix of external component licenses."

As for changes that end-user will notice, they're not a lot. The biggest changes I see will be graphics improvements.

So, while this forthcoming version of LibreOffice may not have users racing to download it the second it arrives, developers should already start looking the LibreOffice release candidate, the new APIs, and the new licensing over.

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Topics: Open Source, Linux, Software, Software Development

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  • Hooray but

    do they have a strict timeline like canonical? no. do they have a lot of financial backing? nothing to write home about. will it ever compete feature-wise with MS Office? not unless they adopt a serious new regimen. somebody's got to do something.
    • hooray

      LibreOffice does not need to be as bloated as MSOffice, it just needs to be lighter, faster and perhaps a little prettier. Most people use few of the multitude of facilities office suites offer and LibreOffice has the price right. What I would want to see is an Outlook-like service that can sync address books, calendars etc to mobile phones (certainly something more advanced than Thunderbird's addressbook).
      • Aye, there's the rub.... want a full featured Outlook-esque email and calendaring application. I want a spreadsheet that allows more user-programmable capabilities and non-linear solver analysis tools. The guy down the street would like better auto-filter, table, and formatting capabilities.

        "Bloat" is pretty subjective, and really means "all that stuff *I* don't use."
    • Um...

      They release every six months and their bug fix releases follow a schedule too. LibreOffice has plenty of entities contributing towards it, including SUSE. It's already superior to MS Office, without the decade-long statistical bugs of Excel. Wake me when I can natively script Excel with Python instead of VBA. Also wake me if MS ever fixes the admitted 15-year broken master documents feature that results in corruption in large documents.
      • Um... maybe not

        "Superior to MS Office" might be your opinion, but a lot of people think otherwise. It certainly has far less functionality.

        I suspect the number of people who would like to script Excel with Python could be counted with the fingers of one hand. However, if you are a programmer and keen, maybe you should investigate combining IronPython with VSTO and see where you get to.

        You certainly do seem to have been asleep, as the "master documents" feature in Word was dropped years ago (in the 2007 release I think).
      • Python scripting

        Pyxll makes it possible to write natively Python scripts in MS Excel.
        Please wake me if something similar exists in LO.
        Pieter Marres
  • Nit picky stuff

    And I quote, "Besides tje API change," OK, so LibreOffice can't find common mispellings like tje instead of the. Nice bit of promotion there Steven.

    Maybe, just maybe Libre is better than that, but Steven let his standard incompetence show one more time.

    He hurts these products more than he helps.
    • if there

      is nothing else for you to pick at, then it's good. Is this an indication of your cynicism losing teeth. Or is it just a weekend?
      • What? Steven is still incompetent and LibreOffice is inferior?

        He just proved both.
        • libreoffice is inferior to

          (La)TeX and friends with Emacs or LyX. MS Office is inferior to LibreOffice. I'd say, hugely inferior.
          • LOL - now that's funny

            see I see Google Docs and LibreOffice as inferior to Office. I use all three, and basically when I need to do real work it's Office. But it's a good alternative if you do not have Office.
          • A poor alternative at best

            with all the competition out there, Libre and Open Office are still way behind.

            Alternative, yes, preferred alternative, no.
          • Preferred Alternative?

            Can you enlighten us with your preferred alternative?
          • Real work?

            willing to bet you and half of the others posting here have no clue what a real day's work is!
    • LOL you are probably right

      but I have to say he maybe growing up. What does that mean? There was not one negative or any of his typical childish "comments" about MS. He actually stuck to the topic.

      LibreOffice is OK, it's no office but it is 1000X's better then that crappy Google Docs. So if I had to choose something other than office - it would be LibreOffice.
    • Implying he wrote the article in LibreOffice...

      ...and not his browser.
  • What is your time estimate for an iOS tablet optimized version?

    Waiting for MS Office suite availability for my iPad is starting to get old. If this suite is available for iOS within the next six months, millions of potential MS office suite sales for iOS customers will be lost forever, IMO.
    • What's wrong with iWork on the iPad?

      Just curious.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • I'm really really

        looking forward to libreoffice on android. android has some good office suites, but nothing quite as good as libreoffice. plus it would be nice to have an office suite that works on every platform, so you have guaranteed 100% format compatibility between devices.
        • Office suite for Android

          Did you look at ?
          They offer a suite for Android.
          Pieter Marres