The Bright Future of LibreOffice

February 2012 was a coming-of-age for the LibreOffice open source productivity suite. Multiple announcements show the project is well-supported and thriving. But what of the future?

Formed out of Oracle's neglect of the OpenOffice.org project by a community uprising in 2010, LibreOffice quickly gathered a critical mass of developers to work on it, drawn from a diverse set of backgrounds and motivations. They hunkered down on the tasks that had been hard to address while the project was in the hands of Sun Microsystems (where I was once employed), such as removing unused code from the project's two-decade legacy or making it possible for a beginner to get involved through Easy Hacks. A year and a half later, there's much to show for their efforts, yet so much more to do.

February saw multiple significant events. The most important was the release of LibreOffice 3.5, full of subtle improvements and a few larger features such as support for Microsoft Visio files. InfoWorld's Neil McAllister summed it up in his review:

If you were expecting a revamp on the scale of Office 2007, you'll be disappointed. For all the work that has gone into the new version, most of it is under the hood. Still, if you're a current OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice user, you should waste little time in upgrading to this version, which is more stable and user friendly than ever.

Supported on a wide range of platforms (including Windows, OS X, GNU/Linux and BSD) this is mature code -- with all that implies, including a need for the very latest ideas to show up. So a second significant event was a demonstration at Europe's FOSDEM conference by community member Michael Meeks of LibreOffice Online, a port of LibreOffice that delivers office productivity to the browser. Add an early preview by developer Tor Lillqvist of a port of LibreOffice to an Android tablet, and it's clear that giving the community control of the project has opened up scope for multiple independent innovations.

A news release from the project early in February offered insight into where this energy is coming from. The community now has more than 400 contributors, including 50 core developers, with over 2,200 volunteers providing bug reports. How did that happen in only 18 months?

The key was another February event, the incorporation of The Document Foundation (TDF) as an independent legal entity. Promised by the original founders of LibreOffice, TDF is intended to provide an inviolable safe haven for development of LibreOffice and its innovative new relatives. The community around LibreOffice was clearly highly motivated by this independence, having donated $66,000 in small payments in just seven days back in 2011 to serve as the core capital of an exceptionally stable German nonprofit. No one calls the shots at LibreOffice apart from the developers, and TDF was created to make sure things stayed that way even as the project is adopted by corporate sponsors.

The most recent news underlines the wisdom of that approach. Last week saw Intel join TDF's advisory board and commit to distribution of LibreOffice for Windows through its AppUp store. Corporate supporters like Intel will undoubtedly be very welcome, but ensuring that every contributor genuinely has a voice in the project remains a priority.

That has to be the key lesson to draw from LibreOffice. Successful open source communities are places where every participant is able to aspire to their own vision within the context of collaboration. People participate in open source projects to meet personal goals, not just to be philanthropic. They must have room to be allowed to meet their needs, including making money without the permission of other community participants. When a single company is in control -- by design or simply by being the only one who shows up -- that ability is stifled and participation is limited. This was a takeaway from the failure of Symbian and is hopefully one that HP understands as it tries to migrate WebOS over to open source.

Where next for LibreOffice? To continue this success, the project will need to encourage the nascent innovation seen in the Web and Android editions. It's time for a refresh of the user interface (although not to slavishly follow Microsoft Office), for the addition of collaboration features, and for the inclusion of cloud integration, all of which will need developer focus.

Today's bring-your-own-device revolution provides the ideal opportunity for an open source productivity suite to finally gain corporate traction; to be the package of choice, LibreOffice needs to build on this solid base and deliver the capabilities that enable it. Time will tell if it can pull off the feat. Given the amazing rescue of OpenOffice.org by the LibreOffice community, I have high hopes it will.

This article, "The bright future of LibreOffice," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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