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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 distributions.
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 offshoot of 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 same LGPLv3 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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