Abandons Oracle to Become LibreOffice

By Craig Buckler
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An open source collective known as the The Document Foundation has seized control of the OpenOffice suite. The product has been given the temporary name of “LibreOffice” following a major restructuring effort that declares independence from Oracle.

OpenOffice is an important product for small businesses and freelancers. For Linux users, it’s one of the best office suites available and provides good compatibility with Microsoft documents. For Windows users, it’s a viable free alternative to Microsoft Office.

Until recently, OpenOffice’s principal developer was Sun Microsystems. It was used as the basis for Sun’s commercial Star Office product, so many OOo developers worked on the product full-time. However, the product’s future had been uncertain following Oracle’s acquisition of Sun in early 2010. The company recently re-branded the product but had made no public commitment to future development.

The Document Foundation is an independent self-governing group formed by leading members of the community. The suite has been forked and renamed “LibreOffice” because Oracle still owns the brand. In a slightly cheeky move, the group has invited Oracle to join and donate the OpenOffice name. I wish I’d been in Larry Ellison’s office when that letter arrived!

Several articles are reporting that the move will liberate ongoing development. In theory, full independence and no commercial interference improves the suite’s prospects.

However, I’m less convinced by the short-term outlook. Unless Oracle release the OpenOffice name and associated web domains, development forks can confuse end users (and does anyone else think “LibreOffice” is an awful name?) Funding issues may arise and Oracle could make life difficult for the Foundation.

It’s an interesting development and decisions made during the next few months will be critical to the future evolution of the project.

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  • Yeah, I agree with your take on this Craig. It seems to me that “OpenOffice” is an identifiable brand even if you haven’t heard of it. Most people familiar with productivity software are aware of MS Office and OpenOffice will have a familiar ring to it. LibreOffice is a clever twist on the name but I don’t think it will resonate with anyone who isn’t familiar with OpenOffice, Oracle, Sun, OSS, etc…

    As far as the software goes, OpenOffice has been the only office productivity suite on my workstation since Jan 2010 and it hasn’t let me down in that time. The only exception was when I had to spawn a virtual copy of windows with MS Office for inspecting an MS Access database.

  • Adam Bolte

    I love where the Document Foundation are heading – keeping the focus on free software. The project suggested (and even hosted) proprietary extensions to users who are just trying to use free software. It was also annoying when it wanted to install Sun’s implementation of the JRE, as opposed to IcedTea’s truly-free version. I expect these now won’t be a problem.

    The new direction is a huge improvement, and the LibreOffice name allows anyone involved in free or open source communities to immediately recognize the Document Foundation’s core values. While it might not be catchy, I’ll be interested to see how they improve upon it while keeping what the name represents intact.

    I too thought the way they asked Oracle publicly for the name was a bit cheeky, but in their shoes (particularly since Oracle has not publicly expressed any opinion on the matter AFAIK) one would be mad not to.

    With the lineup of supporters and the new more developer-friendly approach, there must be a huge amount of pressure on Oracle to join or risk being left behind.

  • Let’s hope you’re right, Adam. However, if Oracle decide to invest in OOo, we’d have two forks with differing feature sets. Perhaps that’ll lead to increased competition and rapid evolution. Or maybe it’ll confuse users and split the development effort.

    Ideally, Oracle will hand over the rights to the name and invest in the project’s future. Is that likely?… Place your bets now!

    • Adam Bolte

      Heh! I see a new SitePoint poll coming. :D

      Traditionally I don’t think forks have been such a terrible thing – for the end user at least. Three major FOSS project forks that immediately spring to mind include Xorg, NeoOffice and Cedega.

      XFree86 was forked for all kinds of reasons, but a licensing change by the project saw the Xorg fork that we all use today. This produced a clear improvement over what we had.

      Even has been forked before. The NeoOffice project proved useful for Mac users for a while, since didn’t run on OS X without installing an X server. That’s no longer the case, and I imagine the NeoOffice project has outlived its usefulness.

      Cedega (or WineX as it was called in the day) was also a proprietary fork of WINE by TransGaming. It’s an interesting (if not completely related) example. Wine used to be released under an MIT license, but the free software developers got fed up with TransGaming taking all the code they wrote, packaging it into a binary (with TransGaming’s own secret enhancements) and selling it while giving very little back to the community. The WINE project changed their license to the LGPL to put a stop to TransGaming’s actions, and effectively left them for dead.

      CodeWeavers (who make the other CrossOver proprietary WINE forks) have needed to actively develop to remain competitive. Because of the licensing and community support, CodeWeavers gives back a lot of their work to the WINE project. WINE and CodeWeavers have improved each other and given users more choice.

      In the end, forks typically have resulted in an improved product for the end user. If Oracle decided to continue investing in OOo, they would probably need to make the product proprietary (seemingly possible since all contributions made have apparently required signing the Sun Microsystems, In.c. Contributor Agreement). If they do so, I’m confident they won’t be able to keep pace with all FOSS contributions going to LibreOffice without some pretty serious effort.

      Alternatively, should Oracle decide to keep things as they are without supporting LibreOffice, any changes they make will simply be incorporated into the LibreOffice project. Then Oracle will again have two choices:

      1. Take improvements from LibreOffice and include it into (which means no more Contributor Agreement, which means no more option of making things proprietary). It also means developers get code in both projects easier than ever before, so end users will get a better product no matter which dominates.

      2. Ignore contributions to LibreOffice and get left behind (since LibreOffice will obviously take code from when they can).

      All considered, Oracle doesn’t have a lot of options. They will most probably either try to make the product proprietary and start selling it (which won’t be successful long term since most people won’t be interested in paying or will be more interested in a free software solution), *or* they will simply give up the name in exchange for the Oracle logo on the LibreOffice website or some such.

      • Adam Bolte

        It also would be amusing if Oracle kept the project name as even though it was made proprietary. Somehow I don’t think they would keep the name (if they went down that path), but I doubt they would give it up either.

      • I agree, although the projects you mention are fairly niche areas with many expert users.

        OOo/LO attracts a larger group of novice users. It’ll be difficult to raise awareness of LO and even tougher to persuade users to install it.

      • Adam Bolte

        Maybe. However didn’t exactly have to advertise to gain the public awareness it currently has, nor did it have to rely on OEM pre-installations. Simply, the media and word of mouth did all the advertising required.

        I’ve seen countless install discs on the front of computer magazines with the latest on the cover. When those same magazines switch over to bundling LibreOffice on the cover, people will be forced to know about it. GNU/Linux distros will also bundle LibreOffice instead of by default. Mention to friends that has been renamed to LibreOffice (even if it’s not entirely true) and I expect it will be a non-issue. :)

        Recall Firefox was once called Phoenix. Then it had its name changed to Firebird. Then there is the GNU IceCat rebranding, which was previously called GNU IceWeasel. Who cares! It’s all the same thing and the browser is still in 2nd place.

  • Andy White

    LibreOffice – great idea, terrible name! I suspect that branding won’t last too long.
    I can’t see Oracle taking OOo proprietary; nobody’s going to pay good money for a chunk of software that (to most enterprise users’ way of seeing things) poorly replicates an already existing proprietary chunk of software. (Then again, with good marketing, anything is possible).

    • Adam Bolte

      More than just marketing. They could (for example) theoretically license Microsoft’s .doc rendering engine. Then even if the license costs for Oracle’s new product cost more than MS Office, they would have the advantage for some users of having a cross-platform product.

      Okay – wacky example, but you get the idea. Making the product proprietary potentially allows Oracle to take the software in directions previously not possible.

  • user

    let the flame war begin!
    dude, look, my open source office is better than your open source office!

  • In a way, not really news since it’s just another of the products left hanging in the wind by Oracle preparing to become a patent troll that’s gonna make SCO look like a second rate whiplash artist.

    See OpenSolaris. I’m certain that virtualBox and Java will follow suit soon…

    I’ve not seen this much mismanagement or outright deep-sixing of recently acquired properties since Adobe bought out Aldus.

    • Adam Bolte

      Fortunately, if you have given software away under the GPL and own software patents which the software algorithms make use of, you can’t then go around and sue people for using it. You *may* be able to sue derivatives of your GPL software (it’s a very gray area), but that’s probably the most damage you could do. I don’t expect people will be at risk for using either version of VirtualBox.

      If you use OpenJDK or perhaps IcedTea (which I understand is now just about the same), you’ll likely also be fine. What Oracle seem to be doing is suing the non-derivatives of Java for patent infringement. Unfortunately due to all the Java licensing issues of the past, there are a great many Java implementations they could target. I’m sure many are used by companies with large pockets.

      If Oracle decides to stop supporting VirtualBox, I won’t be particularly worried. Perhaps it will be forked, but it wouldn’t matter much to me personally – I’m happy to use KVM. What *would* be nice is to have someone rip out the nice VB GUI and have it drive KVM at the backend… a pretty cool project if FOSS VB development dries up.

      Personally I’ve always found far too many licensing issues with Java to ever give it a serious look. It explains why so much more free software is written in Python.

      Lastly, I think Nexenta is largely nicer than OpenSolaris – and I’m not sure that Sun ever gave much support to Nexenta anyway.

      • 1) Open source Java is no protection as Java isn’t open source. Closed like the android VM or open, makes no different in software patent infringement.

        2) Nexenta is to OpenSolaris as Ubuntu is to Linux. It’s just one of the three or four distributions built ATOP OpenSolaris. (specifically, it’s the ubuntu toolchain and packages atop the openSolaris kernel)

        Just saying ;)

      • Adam Bolte

        > 1) Open source Java is no protection as Java isn’t open source.
        Woah – where have you been the last 4 years? :)

        So if the implementation used is that same GPL version, Oracle wouldn’t be able to sue.

        2. Nexenta and OpenSolaris are completely different. The only main similarity (last I checked) is the kernel and a few utilities, and the rest is mostly GNU. A closer analogy would be Debian GNU/NetBSD Vs NetBSD – they only related via the kernel.

        Also, Linux is just a kernel, and a toolchain is just a set of programming tools. The one you are thinking of is only a subset of the GNU project.

  • sylvaind

    It wont be a problem for the few people that speak french to remember the new name :-)

    by the way the meaning of Libre is very close to the Open one !

    a frogg

    • Adam Bolte

      > by the way the meaning of Libre is very close to the Open one !
      I disagree. As many have said before, “open” never refers to freedom. The Document Foundation are walking a different path to that which used to.

      • Dirgo

        However, in Latinamerica Open Software was always translated as “Software Libre”.

  • Sphamandla

    Not to imply any competition or anything but Office 2010 is really something else but then again Open-office provides its features, Although im not sure as to what the quality of the Open-office on ubuntu 10.04 is since im yet to upgrade in due time of-course. @sylvaind if the meaning of Libre is very close to the Open one i don’t see the point !