Does OpenOffice have a future?

The Apache Software Foundation has made OpenOffice a top-level project but will that be enough to make OpenOffice matter? Should OpenOffice remain an independent open-source project?
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

A few days ago the Apache Software Foundation (ASF) announced that Apache OpenOffice had graduated from the Apache Incubator to become a Top-Level Project (TLP). That's nice but will be it enough to make OpenOffice matter given that its LibreOffice fork has stolen much of its thunder?

Sure, it's nice as Andrea Pescetti, VP of Apache OpenOffice, said "The OpenOffice graduation is the official recognition that the project is now able to self-manage not only in technical matters, but also in community issues. The 'Apache Way' and its methods, such as taking every decision in public with total transparency, have allowed the project to attract and successfully engage new volunteers, and to elect an active and diverse Project Management Committee that will be able to guarantee a stable future to Apache OpenOffice." Really? Why?

Seriously? Why? True, OpenOffice was an important open-source project, but the keyword there is "was." When it was first created as Star Office by Star Division in the 1990s, it was a vital early open-source office suite. Then, after Star Division was acquired by Sun n 1999, its transformation into OpenOffice made it for many years, the most important open-source office suite.

Sun neglected the project though, and after Oracle acquired Sun in April 2009, the core OpenOffice developers, who had been none-too happy anyway, started to fork the project into LibreOffice. They would have been happy to work with Oracle, but Oracle wanted nothing to do with LibreOffice, and as it quickly turned out, OpenOffice. By late May 2011, Oracle had abandoned OpenOffice.

In the meantime, LibreOffice had been doing exceptionally well. Major Linux distributors, such as Ubuntu, had made LibreOffice its main office suite choice. Other groups, ranging from Intel to the Free Software Foundation have thrown their support to LibreOffice.

IBM, which first strongly supported OpenOffice no longer formally supports OpenOffice as an IBM product, Symphony. IBM software architect, Rob Weir, states, however, that "IBM took its resources it was putting on Symphony and put those resources onto Apache OpenOffice. We also hired a team of ex-Sun OpenOffice developers in Hamburg, with decades of experience with this code base. They have worked on the Apache project since last October, and continue to work on it, along with their colleagues on from the Symphony team. We have a large and substantial investment in this project, including programmers, QA and UI designers. They are working openly on the Apache mailing lists."  

True, under Apache OpenOffice is still improving, but most of those improvements seem to be coming from the LibreOffice code-base. So what exactly is the point of continuing OpenOffice? Darned if I know.

Take a look at OpenOffice and LibreOffice's plans for their next versions. You'll find the same laundry list of features: better Office 2007-2013 OpenXML format support, and versions for tablets and the cloud.

In the meantime, after years of resistance, Microsoft says it's finally supporting Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2 with read, edit and save support in Office 2013. This means that there will finally be a single, high-end format that MS-Office, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice will all fully support. If Microsoft delivers, this could make both LibreOffice and OpenOffice much more attractive to end-users.

I have a modest proposal: Instead of wasting time and energy on duplicating work why doesn't Apache join up with LibreOffice's parent organization The Document Foundation and work together on a single open-source office suite? And, in particular why not work together on ODF and OpenXML support? Wouldn't that be best for all OpenOffice/LibreOffice developers and users? I think so.

Updated with Rob Wier comment, October 29th, 2012.

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