Apache should deprecate OpenOffice and send users to LibreOffice instead

Some open source supporters are still using Apache Open Office instead of LibreOffice. Christian Schaller thinks Apache should direct users from its website to LibreOffice instead...

Open Office website pages
There's a striking contrast between the old-fashioned Apache Open Office website, left, and the far more professional LibreOffice site
Christian Schaller, a software engineering manager at Red Hat, has written an An Open Letter to Apache Foundation and Apache OpenOffice team to suggest that they "re-direct people who go to the openoffice.org website to the LibreOffice website instead."

He says: "Letting users believe that OpenOffice is still alive and evolving is only damaging the general reputation of open source Office software among non-technical users."

LibreOffice is the default version shipped with leading versions of GNU/Linux, but Schaller thinks many ordinary users still don't realise things have changed. His anecdata: he found his own mother used OpenOffice, and upgraded her to LibreOffice.

OpenOffice was never a good open source project. It was based on Sun's purchase of a failed German program, Star Office, and Sun got some support from an IBM whose own office product, Lotus SmartSuite, had also failed. Open source contributors were required to give Sun joint ownership of their code to support Sun's StarOffice sales, which discouraged the growth of a vibrant community.

The state of OpenOffice got so bad that the code was forked to create LibreOffice. This quickly became the open office suite of choice, even though OpenOffice's name recognition perpetuated downloads of the old version.

Sun's support came to an end after it was rescued by Oracle. Oracle released a version of Oracle Open Office 3.3 before giving all the code and trademarks to the Apache Software Foundation in 2011. IBM programmers continued to work on the code for the company's Lotus Symphony fork, but then IBM dropped out, again giving its code to Apache.

As Schaller pointed out, "the OpenOffice project is all but dead upstream since IBM pulled their developers off the project almost a year ago and has significantly fallen behind feature wise."

Without Sun and IBM paying OpenOffice programmers, development appears somewhat moribund. According to JohnTHaller, commenting on Hacker News, "OpenOffice had only eight commits by four authors vs LibreOffice's 4,434 commits by 106 authors in the last month."

Why did it happen? Apache didn't get involved until after the first stable release of LibreOffice, and should probably have recognised that it was being lumbered with a loser. Now, unfortunately, it's hard to see a way out. Apache Open Office is being developed under a permissive Apache license whereas LibreOffice uses "copyleft" licences - GNU's LGPLv3 and the Mozilla Public License (MPLv2) - that protect developers' rights.

Pedro, a member of the OpenOffice team in Apache, made a spirited but unofficial comment to Schaller's blog post. He said: "The new releases for Apache are smaller and much more stable than OpenOffice.org ever was. and most importantly it is fully under an unrestricted license. This last point means the code can be re-used by other Apache projects, which is by all means sufficient justification to keep the project in the Apache umbrella."

He added: "Second, most of us don't really like the direction LibreOffice is heading to. Yes, they are doing more development but the code hasn't really advanced in significant features."

That opinion is disputable. It's certainly true that the original slow, bug-ridden OpenOffice.org code needed a huge amount of cleaning up, but LibreOffice has still made plenty of real improvements.

However, it's still far from clear whether either LibreOffice or Apache Open Office has much of a future. Both versions still have interfaces from the 1990s, whereas the vast majority of Microsoft Office users have already adapted to the ribbon interface introduced in 2007.

Microsoft Office is also far from being a 1990s-style office suite, with Office 365 working both online and offline (and streamed), backed up with a terabyte of cloud storage, and extended by companion apps on Windows, Google Android and Apple iOS. Microsoft is fighting a cross-platform ecosystem war against Apple and Google, across PCs, smartphones, tablets and TVs. LibreOffice simply doesn't have the means to compete in that cloud-based battle.

Of course, even after the Munich debacle, some organizations may still want to switch from Microsoft Office to a version of Open Office, but the research suggests this leads to a loss of productivity and increased costs. Today, ZDNet reported that an Italian city that switched to Open Office is now switching to Office 365, and Munich may yet follow.