LibreOffice, OpenOffice, and rumors of unification

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Sep 30, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

According to Charles H. Schulz of The Document Foundation, the unification of LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice is not currently on anyone's agenda. "It is important to realize," Schulz tells me, "that there is no kind of news here coming from the Document Foundation, or to our knowledge the Apache OpenOffice/ Apache Software Foundation." However, the rumors persist that some sort of change is about to happen.

LibreOffice was forked from OpenOffice.org in September 2010, by a group of contributors dis-satisfied with Oracle's stewardship of the leading free office suite. In June 2011, Oracle transferred the OpenOffice.org trademarks and Oracle-owned code to The Apache Software Foundation. Ever since, LibreOffice and Apache  OpenOffice have gone their separate ways, each releasing updated versions of the OpenOffice.org code, to the frequent confusion of users. From the first, Linux distributions have favored LibreOffice, largely for its innovation and improvement of the code, but in April 2014, Apache OpenOffice claimed to have passed 100 million downloads  -- four times the downloads claimed by LibreOffice by 2013. Overall, the two projects seemed to have settled down into mutual avoidance, enlivened by the occasional outburst of acrimony.

Signs of Change
However, over the last month, calls for unifying the project have started appearing. For instance, Daniel Brunner, head of the IT department for Switzerland's Federal Supreme Court is reported as calling for unity to avoid increasing incompatibility. This suggestion has been debated on blogs like Lief Lodahl's, which in turn apparently prompted Schultz to blog about the obstacles against any hypothetical efforts at unity.

Other rumors point to the apparent collapse of Apache OpenOffice in the last few weeks. Commits to OpenOffice have all dwindled in the past month to 9 commits by 4 authors have been made. Furthermore commits spiked in June 2013, and have averaged below 10/month ever since. By contrast, in the last month, LibreOffice has had 1503 commits to the master branch and 3531 commits to all branches, made by 103 authors.

In other words, for some reason, development of OpenOffice has all but stalled, while LibreOffice remains an active project.

Much of OpenOffice's recent decline may be due to IBM's withdrawal from the project. OpenOffice 4.1.1. An anonymous informant alleges -- and web searches appear to confirm -- that IBM did nothing to publicize OpenOffice 4.1.1 when it was released on August 21, and that, since then, IBM developers have disappeared from the OpenOffice mailing lists. In fact, OpenOffice's mailing lists have all but disappeared in the last few weeks -- which is unsurprising, since, as Wikipedia notes, "The developer pool for the Apache project was seeded by IBM employees, who as of 2014 continued to do the majority of the development."

Such changes suggest that IBM is withdrawing support for OpenOffice. If so, then perhaps the upcoming scenario is not unity, but LibreOffice accepting trickles of refugees from a non-functioning Apache OpenOffice.

The obstacles in the way
Regardless of the scenario, uniting the two projects makes sense. Although a few interface differences are starting to appear, functionally the two code bases remain similar. Given the importance of a mature office suite to free software, having two separate projects makes little sense, especially since any new feature in one tends to be added as quickly as possible to the other.

All the same, as Schulz outlines, any sort of unification would not be easy. For one thing, the two projects use different licenses and different repositories. For another, the reorganization would most likely require a new foundation, with existing stakeholders like The Document Foundation insisting on a voice as the new governance was structured.

However, Schulz does not mention the largest obstacle to any scenario -- namely, the long-standing animosity between the two projects. Many of LibreOffice's founders were former members of Go-OO, a splinter group that had all but separated from OpenOffice.org when the code was owned by Sun Microsystems. The forking of LibreOffice brought this division into the open, with supporters of The Document Foundation arguing that they were doing what was best for the code, and Apache OpenOffice members styling themselves as loyalists.

These resentments have been persistent enough that efforts at co-operation over the last four years have had little success. For example, ODF Authors, which is supposed to document both office suites, has found itself supporting primarily LIbreOffice for lack of OpenOffice volunteers.

Under these circumstances, getting the members of both projects to cooperate sounds like an impossible challenge. It would require the repression of both pride and grievances, and more good will than likely exists. Quite simply, the motivation to unite simply does not exist.

In fact, everything considered, the idea of unification should be shelved as unworkable. The effort might easily lead to a preoccupation with mutual accusations that would create even more inefficiency than having two projects, each of which duplicates the efforts of the other.

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