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June 21st, 2011

LibreOffice vs OpenOffice: When the Ball Bounces Your Way

Probably the most boring open source story recently has also been the one getting the most ink. The problem with with the Apache/OpenOffice saga is that the real story already happened, it’s history.

Oracle’s “gift” of to Apache, and the change of license from copyleft to permissive, is merely an epilogue referring back to a prologue: Oracle’s sudden ownership of the open source office suite as a mere byproduct of their acquisition of Sun.

The meat of this story, the chapters between, included Oracle stonewalling OpenOffice’s developers, the folks who collectively know by heart every bloated line in the application, how to improve it and, more importantly, how to fix it. This led to the resulting rise of The Document Foundation, the fork to produce LibreOffice and a first release only a few months later which was a marked improvement over the latest and greatest offering from OpenOffice.

This leaves us wondering, where does the story go from here, now that Oracle, at IBM’s prodding, has given OpenOffice away? We know this is mainly a desperation move by Oracle, just as we know there was nothing desperate about IBM’s involvement, that Big Blue has an agenda. What we don’t know is how this story will develop.

I’ve got an idea on this, but I could be wrong. Actually, I don’t think there’s going to be much of a story from here, and I don’t think you need a crystal ball to figure out how this is going to play out. This story is going to follow such predictable lines that we could just write the articles now, and publish them as the events unfold.

The nature of the Apache license will allow IBM, Oracle and anyone else who’s interested to place proprietary tentacles deep into OpenOffice to create their own proprietary office suite. I suspect that Oracle and IBM will work together to tailor a product to fit the needs of their clients. The resulting suite will be offered as a free incentive to those who purchase a license for their respective stacks. It’s a good guess that this suite will be designed to integrate easily into Oracle’s database, with lots of functions available.

The free version of OpenOffice, the version that everyday users like you and I can download and install, will suffer from a lot of neglect. The folks at Apache might clean some bloat out of the code or work on slowly adding a few functions, but mostly the changes will be cosmetic, at least for the foreseeable future.

The only clear cut winner looks to be LibreOffice, which had really already won before IBM called the play and Oracle snapped the ball to Apache. They won because their first release was a vast improvement over anything OpenOffice has ever offered, and the next release promises even more improvements. They’re adding features, making functions easier to use, and starting to clean out the bloat that’s been accumulating in the code since the Star Office days in Germany before Sun acquired the property. Already many Linux distros have switched to LibreOffice and many of my Mac friends tell me they open LibreOffice for their word processing or spread sheet needs.

Oracle’s pass to Apache was an interception, a move that played right into The Document Foundation’s hands. License compatibility issues means LibreOffice will be able to use any changes made in OpenOffice, but not vice versa. Let me repeat: Any improvements made in OpenOffice will be available to the folks at LibreOffice to use or reject as they please while any changes to LibreOffice are forbidden to the other. The folks at The Document Foundation seem to be on the ball, on track for making their product a crown jewel of FOSS. I don’t think they can lose. Again, I think they already won.

That being said, however, I think I know how this will turn out and its not like I think.

As predictable as I think this situation is, I also think we can be pretty sure that somebody will throw a monkey wrench into the machine. For example, we can probably count on Ellison trying to pull yet another rabbit out of a hat, or even Scott McNealy coming in out of the blue with some half baked scheme to revive his reputation. IBM’s in on this, who knows what’s up their sleeve, and there’s always Novell’s implementation of OpenOffice to consider. SCO might sue – it’s been known to happen. Maybe the Tea Partiers will somehow get involved.

All we really know is nothing but where things stand right now. Where it goes might depend on who’s telling the story.

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Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

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2 comments to LibreOffice vs OpenOffice: When the Ball Bounces Your Way

  • Jeffery Hudson

    I thought that LibreOffice did use Novell’s version of OpenOffice as their base. That’s what i remember reading on TDF’s website before the first release of LO. It’s one of the reasons I switched to LO on launch, i was already using Novel’s version of OO.O

  • Christine Hall

    @Jeffry , you’re 100% correct. However, that doesn’t mean that Novell won’t play a part as this story continues to unfold. In fact, they may be the largest unknown in this factor, since we know little about the new owners at Novell/SUSE.