LibreOffice has breathed new life into the stagnated open source productivity suite. Under The Document Foundation it is moving ahead aggressively. We talked to Charles-H. Schulz Co-founder & Director, The Document Foundation, to understand the development process of LibreOffice, the current status and future plans.
Swapnil: We are witnessing a faster release cycle of LibreOffice as compare to OOo which was stagnated. However with every release we don’t see that many new features. Can you tell us where all this work is going (please emphasis the amount of work is being done to clean up the junk code of OOo)?
Charles: LibreOffice rests on a codebase that’s about 25 years old and that is not very modular. We have thus embarked into a work that focuses on cleaning up dead or unused code, and on developing new features. We started aggressively with the former, and are now progressively allowing more and more development of new features.
There’s a word around the hackers’ team here that the 3.5 is in a sense our first release where we can have fun, because this release, contrary to the 3.4 one, is one where we add features and not just clean up code, break walls and “scrap the floor first to add something new”. But I think it’s fair to say that, if you compare with the development work and habits that used to exist in the old OpenOffice.org project, we have cleaned up over 2 millions lines of code, and bring a number of new features that is impressive, given the fact that the codebase has so many internal dependencies that changing even one small bit might have unintended consequences elsewhere (i.e a nasty bug). We basically changed more lines of code in one year than OpenOffice.org changed in 6 years. I think that you will see an increasing inclusion of new features over time, although keep in mind that some of these features may not be readily visible in the user interface.
We wanted to set up a legal structure that would ensure the independence of the community and the project for a very, very long time. US based foundations, or rather, US based non profit corporations do not offer enough protection in that respect.
Swapnil: Why did you decide to base the Foundation in Germany and not US? Any legal or strategic advantages?
Charles: Yes, the main legal advantage is that a foundation based in Europe (and especially in a country such as Germany) makes it very hard for a software vendor to capture the project and the community. We wanted to set up a legal structure that would ensure the independence of the community and the project for a very, very long time. US based foundations, or rather, US based non profit corporations do not offer enough protection in that respect. Also, keep in mind that while we are blessed with a very active US based community, our “center of gravity” tends to be in Europe or in Brazil in terms of numbers of volunteers.
Swapnil: Which regions are most active in contribution to the development of LibreOffice?
Charles: In terms of software development, Europe is leading. In terms of adoption, things are a bit more even, as Brazil, Asia-Pacific and Europe are our main areas of users. But we also pay attention to
emerging areas, such as Africa.
Swapnil: Can you share with us some data about which companies are actively contributing to the development of LibreOffice?
Charles: We have some data here, in our latest blog:
Swapnil: LibreOffice still carries the same old interface. There are a lot of discussions going on the mailing lists abut the new UI. When can we expect a new UI for LibreOffice? How different will it be and how much influence will there be of MS Office?
Charles: I think all these questions are difficult to answer to. The reason is very simple and comes in two parts:
– we don’t have a precise plan, so anyone’s free to join and contribute code to change the UI.
– it requires a lot of work, I mean really huge amounts of work. What this means is that most of the changes will be incremental, and will then morph into a bigger picture, but that’s far away from now.
However, things are different when it comes to tablets, as our interface will not play well with the “form factor” in question. Which means the interface for tablets will have to be completely rethought.
Swapnil: What is the status of LO for tablets? When will the product be available in the market?
Charles: The project has started, and we are in the process of porting LibreOffice on Android. That is however only one part of the job, as you want to have a new interface that is truly helpful and beautiful for the users. So the question is of course how do you start, do you come up with a viewer first or do you go head on and create a new interface, and how do you decide the level of feature you’ll want to provide.
We will have more features than Microsoft Office 365 and we will not be sending informations to whatever special agency,
Swapnil: What is the goal of LibreOffice Online? Is it going to compete with Google Docs or Microsoft Docs? How different will it be from these two and by when will it be available?
Charles: LibreOffice OnLine will not be a competitor to Google Docs, because we will offer from day one the same features that are already provided by LibreOffice on the desktop, plus collaboration features. The way people use Google Docs is in fact very different. People use Google docs for collaboration first, and they use it for simple documents.
Also, it’s important to note that Google, who is one of our foundational sponsors, offers a document storage service with Google Docs. With LibreOffice OnLine, you will have the choice of the document storage: The Document Foundation will not be offering LibreOffice OnLine as a service, we will only develop the software. Basically, you could be able to use documents from your Google Docs storage into LibreOffice OnLine and save them back into your Google Docs list. You could plug it to DropBox, to an Unhosted storage provider or to a peer-to-peer storage service. Alternatively, we also expect that organizations will also want to host their own documents, so syncing documents by webdav, which is already possible via a LibreOffice extension, will be another way to use a document storage.
LibreOffice OnLine will however be a real competitor to Microsoft Office 365, the web version of Microsoft Office. We will have more features than Microsoft Office 365 and we will not be sending informations to whatever special agency, even when the solution is hosted inside the user’s organization, which is unfortunately the case with Office 365.
Swapnil: What are the big challenges the LibreOffice team is facing?
Charles: That’s a tough one…. I think we still have to fix the whole codebase, which means we need even more hackers, and even more non-technical community members to help us with quality assurance and software distribution.
Community Questions: We asked our Google+ fans if they have any questions for Charles. Here are some of the selected questions.
Marc Roelofs: Are there plans for a guided migration wizard to bring in former MS addicts? It’s hard to convince them now and they stumble on every discrepancy.
Charles: I think it’s an interesting idea. But having been involved in migrations for years myself, I think that such a wizard will have to be very complex (potentially shipped outside LibreOffice itself) and will not solve all the problems, because most of the problems, once you have identified the problematic documents to be migrated, are organizational, not technical.
Kostas Koudaras: After leaving Open Office, how are things in development, do you see things improved? Did you succeed in all of your goals and how was the course of LibreOffice so far?
Charles: There are areas where we even exceeded our expectations, but I also think we have to remain humble and tirelessly continuing to build and grow the LibreOffice community. The community of contributors is who we are, and the most precious asset we can work with. While most of the former OpenOffice.org community has transitioned to the LibreOffice project there’s a need to grow it and to improve our processes. Not everything is definitely sorted out and there are certain areas where things need to be reinvented. When you’re coming from OpenOffice.org you’re bringing old habits as well as valuable know-how and knowledge, but you also need to reinvent some of what you thought was the only way possible. It’s incredibly fascinating, but it requires time, feedback and a good communication.
Hanynowsky Sennin: Why is LO team resistanr to Change? I recall when Citrus mock-up was revealed, the developers behind LO, showed a not-so-friendly behavior?
Charles: That’s a wildly inaccurate assertion. If anything, the LibreOffice team is embracing change more than every other free & open source office suite out there. But what happened is exactly this: there was a nice mock-up that got proposed, although people had taken time to clarify there could not be a major overhaul of the interface. The reason is that it’s complex and it takes an enormous effort to come up with it. So a mock-up is nice, and it’s just that, a mock-up. It does not mean that ” you only need to code it”. If that were the case, you cannot imagine how many mock-ups of aircrafts I would send to Airbus and Boeing and hope they could be turned into actual airplanes. But more seriously: the same designer also came up with a very interesting mock-up, called Frivl and it’s a very nice base for a tablet interface…
Abhay Trivedi: When will Calc become as Powerful and Useful as Excel?
Charles: I think the real question should be: when will Excel be as powerful and useful as Calc?
Shawn Dreelin: Time frame on Android & Cloud versions?
Charles: No hard date set in stone. Think 2013.
Igor Konforti: Are there any plans to support MS visio – Data flow diagram?
Charles: LibreOffice 3.5 supports MS Visio formats.
E. Tasche: I don’t use it. I use Google Docs because its actually faster. If they speed it up I’d love to drop the cloud based stuff, but until then a few milliseconds is an eternity longer than I have to wait.
Charles: I‘d like to react on that with one comment: never forget that most of it (not all, but most of it) is a matter of server load and datacenter capacity. In other words, if you cut Google Docs from the Google datacenters, no matter how great a service and a software it is, you will find it sluggish, and you will not only be complaining about a few milliseconds!