When it comes to open source office suites, most people choose OpenOffice or LibreOffice, and they both look suspiciously similar. That isn’t surprising since they both started with exactly the same code base. However, the LibreOffice team recently penned an open letter to the Apache project — the current keepers of OpenOffice — asking them to redirect new users to the LibreOffice project. Their logic is that OpenOffice has huge name recognition, but hasn’t had a new major release in several years. LibreOffice, on the other hand, is a very active project. We could argue that case either way, but we won’t. But it did get us thinking about how things got here.
It all started when German Marco Börries wrote StarWriter in 1985 for the Zilog Z80. By 1986, he created a company, Star Division, porting the word processor to platforms like CP/M and MSDOS. Eventually, the company added other office suite programs and with support for DOS, OS/2, and Windows, the suite became known as StarOffice.
The program was far less expensive than most competitors, costing about $70, yet in 1999 that price point prompted Sun Microsystems to buy StarOffice. We don’t mean they bought a copy or a license, they bought the entire thing for just under $74 million. The story was that it was still cheaper than buying a license for each Sun employee, particularly since most had both a Windows machine and a Unix machine which still required some capability.
Sun in Charge
Sun provided StarOffice 5.2 in 2000 as a free download for personal use, which gave the software a lot of attention. It eventually released much of the code under an open source license producing OpenOffice. Sun contributed to the project and would periodically snapshot the code to market future versions of StarOffice.
This was the state of affairs for a while. StarOffice 6.0 corresponded to OpenOffice 1.0. In 2003, release 1.1 turned into StarOffice 7. A couple of years later, StarOffice 8/OpenOffice 2.0 appeared and by 2008, we had StarOffice 9 with OpenOffice 3.0 just before Oracle entered the picture.
Then Came Oracle
In 2010, Oracle bought Sun. All of it. They didn’t seem to have much of a plan for some of the things they bought and StarOffice was one of them. They renamed the program Oracle Open Office. They also did strange things with licensing. For example, StarOffice 9 was no longer free for educational customers, but they could use StarOffice 8 or, of course, just stick with OpenOffice and forego support.
In 2011, Oracle decided to kill the commercial offering, leaving OpenOffice, the official community-based keeper for the StarOffice flame. They gave responsibility over to the Apache Software Foundation.
Apparently, though, StarOffice 5.1 will still run on Windows 10 as [RickMakes] demonstrates in the following video:
Open Source and the Rise of LibreOffice
Of course, once the code went open source around 2000, people were free to create derivative projects and they did. While there have been several notable forks including NeoOffice and Go-oo, only LibreOffice has really been robust, even though NeoOffice and the original OpenOffice are still active. However, NeoOffice only targets the Mac. The timeline is a bit of a head scratcher but Wikipedia has this great graphic that lays it out:
When Oracle came on the scene, most of the OpenOffice developers formed LibreOffice. LibreOffice has been under very active development since then, and most Linux distributions now use it as their default office suite. According to the LibreOffice letter, they’ve had 15,000 code commits in 2019 compared to 595 in OpenOffice over the same period. They have had 13 major releases, while OpenOffice hasn’t had a major release in six years.
We aren’t open source lawyers — or any kind of lawyers, for that matter — but one of the problems stems from how the two projects have their licenses. OpenOffice uses the Apache License, whereas LibreOffice uses a dual LGPLv3/Mozilla Public license.
For some legal reasons, then, anything OpenOffice does can be incorporated into LibreOffice, the terms of the license permit that. But if LibreOffice adds something, take font embedding, for example, OpenOffice can’t legally incorporate that code. If you want the details, you can read this contemporary post from the Free Software Foundation. This is further complicated by issues with IBM providing some code from Lotus Symphony that may not have been properly placed into the open source domain.
Back to the Letter
That was a journey, but what about that open letter LibreOffice sent to the Apache project earlier this month? We could argue on either side of the letter. On the one hand, part of living in the open source world is understanding that other people can and will develop parallel projects. However, we can understand the frustration that some people go to OpenOffice and think there’s nothing new there. Of course, there are other open source suites, too, but given the two projects’ sibling status, we can see their point. But users might be just as happy going to Calligra (used to be KOffice) or OnlyOffice, both of which are open source, too.
What do you think? Should OpenOffice throw in the towel? Commence commenting.