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The “Official & True” OpenOffice May be Dying

There have been rumblings about the Apache OpenOffice project struggling to accomplish anything of late, and some of those rumblings have been coming from the people who know the project best. The story is not just a squabble between programmers, however. It involves elements of corporate stewardship, vision, philanthropy, non-profit corporations (including two European foundations), and the ability of open source software to help change the world.

The Background

For those not familiar with the projects, OpenOffice was the predecessor of the current two forms of the open source office suite. For many years, OpenOffice was a corporate-sponsored (but open source) project, backed by Sun Microsystems, which was bought by the Oracle Corp.

In 2010, many independent supporters of the office suite, unhappy with Oracle’s stewardship, decided to form The Document Foundation to help bring together both corporate and independent supporters of the suite, renamed LibreOffice (LO).

Within a year, Oracle decided to discontinue its support for OpenOffice, and donated the entire software kit-and-kaboodle, not to The Document Foundation, but to the Apache Foundation (an already existing open source foundation). The Apache Foundation also inherited the official name, OpenOffice, which was rechristened Apache OpenOffice (AOO).

While Oracle was dithering, The Document Foundation attracted both corporate supporters and volunteers, including those of the independent Go-OO (Go OpenOffice, a group supported by Novell), and quickly energized them with a series of improvements to the software. Today they release upgrades to the software every six months.

The Apache Foundation had a slower start and only one major corporate sponsor for AOO. But that sponsor was IBM, which had its own version of OpenOffice, called Lotus Symphony. (Are you confused yet? Software genealogy gets complicated quickly.) IBM donated its Symphony code to Apache. Apache, in turn, touted the donation for its bug fixes for OpenOffice as well as several features, including sidebars, which they quickly added to the project.

People liked the sidebars enough to add them to LibreOffice, as well.

Since then, The Document Foundation has been recruiting, publicizing, and expanding the LibreOffice project. Their website gives the impression of a lot of energy, excitement and buzz.

But, in the past year or so, there were signs that Apache OpenOffice was not attracting enough experienced programmers and corporate support to organize and improve the office suite.

The Report to the Board

This past April (2015), the Apache OpenOffice group made a report to the Board of Directors of the Apache Foundation. The report was released in the minutes of the Apache Foundation April board meeting, included as “Attachment AU: Report from the Apache OpenOffice Project” by Jan Iverson.

Three paragraphs in that report stand out:

“New volunteers for development show up regularly, but our lack of mentors have made it very difficult to keep them active. The level of commits on trunk remain low, only a few simple fixes have been committed.”

And, later:

“A major issue for AOO is the current activity level (practically no development). The community only has a few active developers, which makes a bootstrapping a challenge.”

Finally, in discussing future releases:

“Even though AOO remains committed to bring out version 4.1.2, it is only progressing slowly. It is decided this will be the first digitally signed release. The slowness is due to focus on other challenges (like electing a new chair) and to lack of developers / release manager.”

The report also states that even trying to transfer the AOO website to Apache’s new Content Management System is currently beyond the ability of the project’s staff and volunteers.

The last major release of AOO was version 4.1 on April 29, 2014. A minor update, v. 4.1.1 was released in August of last year and nothing since. Nothing has been scheduled, either.

In contrast, LibreOffice had major updates last summer and last January, and is preparing an official release of version 5.0 on August 9th. A “Release Candidate” (a pre-official-release release) is available for download now. On top of that, there are active projects working on Android and cloud versions of the office suite.

The Apache report also made references to talks with another group, to join together to continue the OpenOffice project. The name of the group has not been posted, but most believe that it was The Document Foundation and LibreOffice.

As rumors swirled over the past year, the Apache Foundation and the Apache OpenOffice group have done nothing to counter the speculation. In fact, publicly, they’ve said almost nothing.

Apache OpenOffice logo

And, Now, The Present

The bright spot is that AOO continues to be popular in the general public and downloads of the 4.1.1 version have continued, suggesting the OpenOffice brand is still strong and has a good reputation among many users.

Who’s the Super Hero?

So, Apache OpenOffice needs a super hero to swoop in to provide organization and experienced programmers (and cash, too) if any substantial new upgraded version of AOO is to appear.

All of which is a shame. The open source movement might not be enormous, but it should be large enough to support two sponsors engaging in friendly competition to envision the future of the OpenOffice franchise. The key word is “friendly.” Perhaps there was a period where AOO’s supporters could have overcome the toxicity between the factions, but that cooperation doesn’t seem to have crystallized, at least formally. Meanwhile LibreOffice seems to rapidly improve without a lot of AOO’s help (except for adopting the sidebar and a few other features introduced by IBM).

From the outside peeking in, it now appears that LibreOffice can survive and prosper without Apache OpenOffice, but AOO could use an infusion of talent and support from someone, somehow, somewhere.

In its only public announcement about the future of its work (“Collaboration is in our DNA”, Apache OpenOffice sounds like it wants to be the standard bearer for the one, true and holy OpenOffice crusade, but the software knights have decided, instead, to ride behind the flag of LibreOffice.

A quick review of a couple of months of minutes of the Apache Software Foundation Board of Directors show that the Foundation is very, very busy supporting an impressive variety of open source projects with many potential future projects in the hopper, too. Perhaps those creative riches, making AOO only a tiny part of the foundation’s focus, are part of the problem, too.

For AOO, the handwriting may not be on the wall, but that might only be because the plaster hasn’t had time to dry yet.

References:

The Apache OpenOffice Blog

The minutes of the meetings of the Board of Directors of the Apache Foundation are located on the Foundation Board’s Calendar page.

The LibreOffice website

Article “Is OpenOffice Dying?” by Bruce Byfield on the Datamation blog, April 21, 2015.

Article “Is OpenOffice on its way out?” by Joel Hruska on ExtremeTech, April 23, 2015.

The Superhero Polygon image is used courtesy of “vectorolie” and FreeDigitalPhoto.net.

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