The end of OpenOffice?

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Simon Jones is bemused by Oracle's attitude to OpenOffice

Since Oracle bought Sun Microsystems in 2009, many of the developers and supporters of OpenOffice have worried whether Oracle is committed to continued development of the project.

At the OpenOffice.org conference at the beginning of September in Budapest, Michael Bemmer, general manager of the new Oracle Office Global Business Unit, felt obliged to underline in his keynote speech what he called the “importance of Oracle Open Office and OpenOffice.org to Oracle and its customers”.


However, this appears not to have allayed the fears of the OpenOffice community, and by the end of the month their concern had reached a point where all the main players jumped ship, abandoning OpenOffice.org to form The Document Foundation and to rebrand the formerly eponymous software suite as “LibreOffice”.

Oracle hasn’t shown much interest in either StarOffice or OpenOffice, concentrating its efforts instead on its new online Cloud Office suite
The Document Foundation is supported by Novell, Red Hat and Canonical, makers of Ubuntu Linux. Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical says that LibreOffice will ship with future Ubuntu releases. Oracle has been “invited” to join The Document Foundation and to “donate” the OpenOffice brand that it acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems to the foundation, but whether Oracle will do either is uncertain at this time.


"Oracle hasn’t shown much interest in either StarOffice or OpenOffice, concentrating its efforts instead on its new online Cloud Office suite"

The Document Foundation is supported by Novell, Red Hat and Canonical, makers of Ubuntu Linux. Mark Shuttleworth of Canonical says that LibreOffice will ship with future Ubuntu releases. Oracle has been “invited” to join The Document Foundation and to “donate” the OpenOffice brand that it acquired when it bought Sun Microsystems to the foundation, but whether Oracle will do either is uncertain at this time.

The company’s commitment to open-source software has been criticised in the past – it shut down the OpenSolaris project, filed patent suits against Google over Java, and introduced charges for the previously free ODF plugin that Sun had made available for Microsoft Office.
Historically, Sun contributed much of the development effort for OpenOffice because it shared much of the same code-base as its paid-for StarOffice suite.

Oracle, however, hasn’t shown much interest in either StarOffice or OpenOffice, concentrating its efforts instead on its new online Cloud Office suite. Although this will use the Open Document Format (ODF) file format, it isn’t based on the OpenOffice source code. Two other companies tried in the past to convert the OpenOffice code to run on a web server or to stream it to desktops the way Microsoft did with Office 2010 through its Click-to-Run virtualisation technology. Neither was particularly successful.

(Incidentally, you could argue that Microsoft’s Click-to-Run hasn’t been as successful as hoped, since many testers had significant problems with it during its beta phase, and I was left with the strong impression that you need a very clean computer and a very fast and constant internet connection to make it work. And even then you’d be at the mercy of the supplier of this “Software as a Service”, if its servers were to go down for any reason.)

Cloud Office

As with Google Docs or Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, Oracle is touting Cloud Office as the best thing since sliced bread for “Web 2.0-style collaborations” and other ill-defined buzz-phrase activities. Cloud Office will run either on premise or hosted on Oracle’s own hardware, and requires just a web browser to access it.

Again, like Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, Oracle says Cloud Office will complement its traditional Office application suite, but then Oracle can never decide what that suite is actually called: it’s variously referred to as “Oracle Office” or “Oracle Open Office”, while the “OpenOffice” and “StarOffice” brands seem to have disappeared altogether from Oracle’s marketing vocabulary.

It’s happy to sell you “Oracle Open Office” in Standard or Professional editions for £33 and £60 per user, but you can only buy the Standard edition for up to 99 users and the Professional edition for 100+ users (and don’t forget to add £13 per user per year for support, £13 for the installation kit, £737 per processor for the server component to do bulk conversions of documents to PDF and so on). “Free” software doesn’t look particularly free in Oracle’s model, but then as free and open-source software (FOSS) advocates always say, it’s “free” as in “free speech” rather than “free” as in “free beer”.

Oracle isn’t saying when Cloud Office will be released or how much it will cost, but does say it’s been working on it for “some time”. Replicating the functionality of a traditional office productivity suite inside a browser isn’t easy, as Google, Adobe, Zoho, Microsoft and others can testify.

It’s difficult to provide the rich user interface and ease of use available in desktop applications, and harder still to have complex documents look and print the same on the desktop and the web. Zoho took five years to rewrite its mail client into a web app, employing around 350 developers, and reportedly Sun had only about 50 developers for the whole of OpenOffice. OpenOffice is written mainly in C++ and Java, and it’s been estimated that it would take 7,500 programmer years to rewrite its 30 million lines of code from scratch.

The number of active OpenOffice developers has dwindled to a few tens over recent years as the participating companies redirected their development efforts elsewhere. Oracle’s acquisition of Sun could have provided the spur needed to reinvigorate the team to work harder and smarter, enabling OpenOffice to compete more successfully against Microsoft Office, but instead it seems to have split the community down the middle. We’ll have to watch to see how Oracle reacts and whether there are any signs that the rift can be healed.

A beta version of LibreOffice is already available, equivalent in functionality to OpenOffice 3.3 beta. It’s available for Windows, GNU/Linux and Mac OS X, but only in US English, and not all the rebranding has been completed. [source]


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