After just four months since splitting away from the OpenOffice.org
project, LibreOffice has made
its first stable release. While LibreOffice 3.3 and the
(also just released)
OpenOffice.org 3.3 share most of the same code,
LibreOffice has started to differentiate itself from its progenitor. It
has also built an impressive community in that time, and will be included
in the next releases of the major community distributions.
From almost any angle, it looks like LibreOffice is on a roll.
There are quite a few new
features, as well as bug fixes, in the new release. Some of them may
not seem all that new, at least to those who have been using the
OpenOffice.org 3.3 release candidates. For some time, Linux users have
generally been getting a much-enhanced version of OpenOffice.org based on the
builds maintained by the Go-oo project.
Since Go-oo has essentially morphed into the LibreOffice project, much of
the new functionality will be found in both LibreOffice 3.3 and OpenOffice.org 3.3 on many
For example, the SVG import feature for Writer and Draw that is listed as a
LibreOffice-only feature also appears in the latest OpenOffice.org for Fedora 14 (which is
based on OpenOffice.org 3.3-rc9 plus the Go-oo patches). It may be that Windows and
Mac OS X users are the most likely to notice big differences, depending on
where they were getting their version of OpenOffice.org (from Sun/Oracle or Go-oo).
It should also be noted that the SVG import feature still has some bugs
to be excised. On an import of the SVG of the LWN penguin, both LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org took many minutes
(on the order of ten) to render the SVG, and the rendering was incorrect. Both GIMP and
Inkscape render it in seconds (or less) and are both in agreement that it
should look much the way it does in the upper left of this page.
I gave LibreOffice 3.3 a try on Fedora 14. Not finding any experimental LibreOffice yum
repository in a quick search, I decided to go ahead and download the tarball, which
provided a handful of (unsigned) RPMs. After installing those, there is an additional "desktop-integration"
RPM to install, which conflicted with the various OpenOffice.org packages that were still
installed. After a moment's thought, I went ahead and removed OpenOffice.org, which
proved uneventful as LibreOffice is a drop-in replacement.
Working with various documents and spreadsheets in LibreOffice was also
uneventful, which is no real surprise. It's not clear what differences
there are between Fedora's OpenOffice.org 3.3 and LibreOffice 3.3, but they were not
particularly evident in the (fairly simple) documents that I worked with.
For power users, perhaps there are more obvious differences. But there is
also no reason to go back to OpenOffice.org that I can see. Apart from the
LibreOffice start-up splash screen, it really isn't apparent that you
aren't running OpenOffice.org.
Lots of Linux users will likely be using LibreOffice soon anyway, as
Ubuntu, openSUSE, and Fedora all plan to ship it in their next release.
openSUSE 11.4 is currently scheduled for March, so it may well be the first
of those to switch over to LibreOffice. But Ubuntu 11.04 ("Natty Narwhal")
and Fedora 15 won't be far behind, with the former scheduled for April and
the latter for May. Debian "Squeeze" (6.0) will still be shipping
OpenOffice.org (3.2.x), which is not surprising given the stability that
Debian likes to bake into its releases.
Looking beyond the 3.3 release, LibreOffice has a fairly aggressive
release schedule, with plans for 3.3.1 in February and 3.3.2 in March,
both of which will consist mostly of bug fixes.
There are also plans for a more major 3.4 release in May. Over time, the
plan is to
do major releases every six months and to try to align them with distribution
release cycles by making those releases in March and September.
The biggest new feature in LibreOffice 3.3 is probably the SVG import
mentioned earlier. Another is the ability to have spreadsheets with up to
a million rows (the previous limit was 64K). Many of the rest seem like
they will be popular with a much smaller subset of LibreOffice users,
though the improved support for importing MS Works, Lotus Word Pro, and
WordPerfect formats will likely strike a chord with folks who have to deal
with documents in those formats.
Many of the new features listed seem like longstanding bugs (or
misfeatures) of OpenOffice.org that are finally being addressed. An easier
to use title page dialog box, a tree view for headings, better slide layout
handling for Impress, radio button widgets in the menus, auto-correction
that correctly matches the case of the word replaced, and so on, all seem
like things that have been bugging users for some time but weren't getting
addressed in the OpenOffice.org releases.
The ability to address some of these warts is part of why LibreOffice
exists. The large number of patches that were carried along by the Go-oo
project was not going to be a sustainable model, and the development style
of the OpenOffice.org project made it unable, or unwilling, to incorporate many
of those kinds of changes, at least quickly. The LibreOffice developers have clearly
learned from that experience and are trying to fix these kinds of things as
quickly as reasonable patches are submitted.
One of the goals of the LibreOffice project is to be welcoming to new
developers and their patches. That's part of the reason that there is no
contributor agreement required for LibreOffice patches. But the welcoming
approach goes beyond that. The now semi-famous list of "easy hacks" as an
easy introduction for developers (and others) is a perfect example. Many
projects would probably find it easier to get people involved by
maintaining a similar list.
There is also an active development
mailing list, with discussions about all kinds of
patches, bugs, and features. There are other mailing
lists for users, design, marketing, documentation, and so on, along
with an active #documentfoundation IRC channel on Freenode.
Some friction is to be expected in the formative stages of a new project
and LibreOffice is not immune to that. The OOXML debate was one such
incident. In addition, steering committee member Florian Effenberger alludes
to some unhappiness in the community about the role of that
committee. Project governance is by no means a solved problem, and
community members will often disagree about the direction of the project
and its leadership. That certainly isn't just a problem for new projects as
the current turmoil in the
FFmpeg project will attest.
OpenOffice.org is still chugging along, but a look at its mailing lists
suggests that there is far less enthusiasm in that community than
LibreOffice's. That may not be a good way to measure, or even estimate,
a community's fervor, but it definitely seems like the wind has gone
out of OpenOffice.org's sails. Oracle has an interest in continuing
Oracle Open Office (formerly StarOffice)—the commercial
OpenOffice.org—development, but one has to wonder how long it will
be willing to maintain an
open source edition.
Because of the "corporate" development style and the contributor agreement
requirements for OpenOffice.org—two of the major reasons that
LibreOffice forked—it seems likely that external contributions, such
as they were, will be on the decline. The two projects have the
license, so code can theoretically migrate between them, but new features that go into
LibreOffice may not make their way into OpenOffice.org because of the
contributor agreement. That means that LibreOffice can cherry-pick
features from OpenOffice.org, at least as long as the code bases don't
diverge too much, while OpenOffice.org has to either forgo or reimplement
them. Should LibreOffice be successful, it will provide a pretty clear
object lesson on the perils of requiring contributor agreements.
Overall, the progress made by LibreOffice has been very impressive.
Obviously the Go-oo project (and OpenOffice.org itself) gave the
LibreOffice founders a good starting
point—and a lot of lessons and experience—but that doesn't
diminish what has been accomplished at all. One can only imagine the
strides that will be made over the next year or two. It will no doubt be
interesting to see where it goes from here.
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