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Progress Report: LibreOffice Beta 3

The OpenOffice.org fork continues to move forward. The Document Foundation recently released LibreOffice beta 3, with a set of modest user-facing improvements, and more under-the-hood work. Can LibreOffice overtake OpenOffice.org? Chances look very good.

The progress made by the LibreOffice folks so far is impressive, at least when it comes to attracting contributors. The third beta was released on November 18th, and seems to have impressive momentum. The release notes list 118 contributors who’ve helped with the development just between beta 2 and beta 3. How’s it looking so far? Don’t expect miracles, but it’s shaping up nicely.

If you’ve installed beta 2, remove it before installing beta 3. I installed on Ubuntu 10.10, which was pretty easy — just download the tarball with all the Debian packages and uncompress it. Then go to the DEBS directory and run sudo dpkg -i *deb. After that, go to the desktop-integration directory and install the single Debian package (libreoffice3.3-debian-menus_3.3-2_all.deb) there. That package isn’t strictly necessary, but it provides menu integration. You probably want that.

One random comment — it’s odd that the LibreOffice folks offer RPMs by default as the download, and “hide” the Debian packages underneath. Given that Ubuntu is by far the most popular desktop Linux, one would think the organizers would default to debs rather than RPMs. Not sure why this is, but it’d be spiffy if they fix it.

After I installed the beta, I tested it out with a slew of existing documents I’ve created over the years using OpenOffice.org, or that have been sent to me in Microsoft Office formats. Since it’s still pretty close to the original OpenOffice.org codebase, I wasn’t expecting a lot of difference — and that’s pretty much what I got. If you’ve used OpenOffice.org, then (at least for now) you’ve used LibreOffice. It seems a bit faster, but we’re talking a couple of seconds here and there, tops.

The development summary is on the LibreOffice wiki. You’ll see that there’s a bunch of minor improvements — like improvements in Calc for using the Tab key, a feature that turns CAPS LOCK off if LibreOffice detects that it’s on. (Like seeing something “like tHIS”.) Several improvements for non-English speakers, an “always save” option, and so on. Nothing spectacular, but steady progress.

A lot of improvement in LibreOffice will happen under the hood for now. Reading various developer blogs, and having talked to Michael Meeks and other (non-Sun) OO.org devs about this in the past, there’s a lot of cruft that can be cleaned out. In the past, that cruft remained in Go-OO.org because they were trying to maintain compatibility with OpenOffice.org upstream. This is less of a focus now — the project is still importing code from OpenOffice.org from Oracle, but they’re willing to diverge.

Looking Ahead

If you’re hackerish and would like to help the LibreOffice effort, the project has a set of “easy hacks” that would be a good place to start. These range from removing bogus macros to translating or removing comments in the code in German. (For those who aren’t familiar — the OpenOffice.org heritage traces back to a proprietary office suite called StarOffice created by StarDivision, which was a German company.) More experienced developers might want to tackle projects like helping move from HSQLDB to SQLite for Base, or exporting OLE objects as PDFs or graphics.

What about OpenOffice.org? In the long run, I see Oracle taking one of two paths with the suite. The first is obsolescence. Oracle, having driven away the developer community external to Oracle, can say “well, we tried, but those darn open source folks are just too hard to work with,” and be satisfied that they’ve offloaded the work to the LibreOffice community.

The other is that Oracle will continue OpenOffice.org, blissfully free of outside interference. Say what you will about Oracle, it’s not like the company is averse to spending money on development. It merely has an aversion to having to work with a community when it’s not in its best interests. I would contend that Oracle would have been better off cooperating with the larger OO.org community and trying to fix the areas where Sun was deficient, but that’s not really Oracle’s style. But, unless Oracle’s OO.org efforts are matched with marketing dollars, it’s not going to be terribly successful. The OpenOffice.org brand was driven by a committed community and a number of companies that had a vested interest in promoting it. Now that most of those companies, and a large amount of the community as well, have moved to LibreOffice it will taper off.

But the real competition is between desktop office suites and Web-based office suites. LibreOffice supporter, and generally smart guy, Meeks has said that he doesn’t see demand for Web-based suites outstripping fat client office suites in the near future. I disagree — and I don’t see LibreOffice cutting any farther into Microsoft’s Office market share than OpenOffice.org has — at least as long as LibreOffice is only a desktop play. Time will tell, but I really hope that the FOSS community starts thinking more about Web-based productivity apps.

For Linux users who want a desktop suite, though, LibreOffice is the path forward. The major distros have already endorsed it and if the LibreOffice folks can maintain the momentum they have now it will improve far faster than OpenOffice.org.

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