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Summary:

The OpenOffice community has staged a coup against project owner Oracle, but to what effect? The Document Foundation promises little more than a tired retread on an outdated office productivity meme. It’s time for the open-source community to ditch OpenOffice and instead embrace the web.

Fork in the Road

The big news in Open Source Land this week is that the OpenOffice community has kissed goodbye to its project owner, Oracle, so it can set up The Document Foundation and a new spin on the OpenOffice code called LibreOffice. The bigger news is that anyone cares.

After all, it’s not as if office suites are playing center stage in technology innovation. Not even Microsoft, which has owned the office productivity suite market for decades, has bothered to release meaningful changes to the desktop version of Office this century. So why should we expect more from The Document Foundation?

Supporters will likely cite Microsoft’s dominance as the very reason to look elsewhere for innovation. Indeed, The Document Foundation has declared its aim to channel innovation back into the office productivity market:

The Foundation will be the cornerstone of a new ecosystem where individuals and organizations can contribute to and benefit from the availability of a truly free office suite. It will generate increased competition and choice for the benefit of customers and drive innovation in the office suite market.

Perhaps. But why start from the paradigm of 1980s technology? Nothing on the Foundation’s new website, or in any of its press materials, suggests that the Foundation’s purpose is to do anything more than free OpenOffice development from the control of one company, Oracle. There’s no discussion of the possibilities of integration with the web. Screenshots look an awful lot like the OpenOffice suite that LibreOffice claims to leave behind.

This isn’t surprising, given that the new LibreOffice has only recently divorced itself from OpenOffice, not to mention the Foundation’s own proclamation that it’s not looking to fork OpenOffice, but rather for “continuity” with its OpenOffice past. Given that it starts from the same client-heavy code base and mentality, how can it hope to truly liberate OpenOffice from the shackles of the desktop on which it was born?

If anyone is advancing the office productivity market, it’s Google Apps  or Zoho Office, which were born on the web. It’s unclear what a web-light, client-heavy Microsoft Office clone can hope to achieve in terms of real innovation. And why are we worried about replicating Microsoft Office functionality, which has long been the aim of the OpenOffice community? While some Excel spreadsheet jocks may live in Microsoft Office, very few of the rest of us give it more than a cursory glance on a regular basis. It’s not that we’re not engaged in “office productivity,” either. We just work differently now.

We email. We SMS. We Facebook. We IM. Or perhaps we crop photos in iPhoto  or make movies in iMovie. What we don’t do, or rarely do, is open a Word document to create a stale relic of communication. Business moves too fast these days to open attachments. Again, yes, there are people who live in documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. But these people are not you, most of the time.

Real innovation today is occurring at the intersection between cloud data and client-side code, as TripAdvisor demonstrates. And it’s happening in the very definition of rich-client applications, as such applications become more mobile and more web-friendly through the innovations of Strobe Inc. and others.

In short, there are far better uses of The Document Foundation’s developer talents than replicating Microsoft’s tired Office legacy. I think a better OpenOffice is a worthy goal, and support that. After all, enterprises will rely on Office and documents for years to come, even as they keep the green-screen terminals around to support outdated applications.

But the future belongs to the web, and The Document Foundation’s very name suggests a backward-looking focus, not the future focus that will keep it relevant. The web is built upon open source, and many of its most interesting innovations have arisen from the open-source community. I’d love to see The Document Foundation help move the conversation around “documents” to the web that is supplanting the need for relics of the way we once worked.

Note: My company, Canonical, supports The Document Foundation. The views expressed here are completely my own.

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  1. I think you’re missing the point. The average person is still using a LOT of documents, and there are a lot of users who want to be able to work offline. Mobile broadband isn’t the norm for the majority of users, and I’m going to hazard a guess that the LibreOffice folks took one look at what happened with Android and realized they didn’t want Oracle in their sandbox if they wanted to develop a system that would work nicely on tablets while still working online. I’d be interested in knowing what sort of conversation went on, but even if it was nothing more than an OS address book, I wouldn’t want to be coding for anything controlled by Oracle, who appears more and more to be focusing on wielding the might of its patent portfolio.

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  2. I completely agree with Cyndy.

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  3. This strikes me as pretty wrong. Desktop software is not going anywhere; the fact that there are new things doesn’t mean that the old things go away. Native, locally-executed software still generally brings performance and features you can’t get elsewhere. Cloud apps are often “good enough,” and that’s about it. Furthermore, I can depend on a local app to keep working. With the cloud you have to worry about Xmarks situations–just running a server for the benefit of the Internet, it turns out, is not a sustainable business.

    There certainly needs to be an effort to make sure the suite keeps up with new platforms. A free tablet and smartphone office suite would be pretty great. And what we really need from cloud applications is the ability to use more generic instead of application-specific storage: Google Docs should be able to just read and save to Dropbox (or any WebDAV server, preferably).

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  4. One cannot expect big changes after just one day of LibreOffice. This action is more ideology oriented that practical. One does not want to be dependent on one big organisation. The web has the future, but not if it is going to be controlled by Google. The pc-software market is dominated by Microsoft, I don’t like it. OpenOffice is open course and that is what is has to be. Hence the action, Oracle is not open source minded, time to go. LibreOffice is brilliant, give it a year, it will!

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  5. “We email. We SMS. We Facebook. We IM. Or perhaps we crop photos in iPhoto (s aapl) or make movies in iMovie. What we don’t do, or rarely do, is open a Word document to create a stale relic of communication. Business moves too fast these days to open attachments. Again, yes, there are people who live in documents, spreadsheets, and presentations. But these people are not you, most of the time.”

    Hi Matt – I’d love to see some studies that show this trend.

    My anecdotal experience on the ground is that businesses now create MORE documents, not fewer. There are far more people using mobile devices now to communicate, but I would not be surprised to find that document production has also increased.

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  6. I absolutely agree with the cloud argument, but today Microsoft Office has about 400 million units in use worldwide. There’s plenty of room for a viable open-source alternative.

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  7. “We just work differently now. We email. We SMS. We Facebook. We IM. Or perhaps we crop photos in iPhoto (s aapl) or make movies in iMovie. What we don’t do, or rarely do, is open a Word document to create a stale relic of communication.”

    I trust this is a royal we. I, a reader of this blog, do not SMS or “Facebook”. (And iPhoto and iMovie are rather client-heavy applications, aren’t they?) My livelihood depends on being able to write long documents, and, while I don’t use ooffice, I use an even more venerable client-side document production tool: LaTeX.

    Office suites are still *huge* in the enterprise world, not to mention the University. Many, many white-collar job ads still request Word/Excel expertise. And if you want to get anything published outside of the hard sciences, you have to submit your manuscript in doc format.

    Google docs is still grossly inadequate for any extensive document editing. (Besides, there are *massive* privacy concerns involved in keeping personal documents on Google’s servers.)

    To my mind, there is still no cloud quite like ssh’ing into a server for a quick bit of mutt and html editing. :)

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  8. I think that you might be a little misinformed about how offices and schools operate. When I go to work, I do not work on social networks, via SMS, or in photo organizers. In fact I use OpenOffice and Zimbra all day long for, really, everything I do, aside from file management (ie, moving these documents to folders, to file shares, etc, which for the record I do in KDE Dolphin). So the importance and significance of an Enterprise-class office suite is very important.

    That said, there is an audience for what you do and perceive others to do on computers, so I don’t think your post is wrong. It’s just not taking into account a very major market outside of your own niche.

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  9. The Article's Author Is a Tool Tuesday, September 28, 2010

    You write with the temperament of an arrogant child.

    “We email. We SMS. We Facebook. We IM. Or perhaps we crop photos in iPhoto (s aapl) or make movies in iMovie. What we don’t do, or rarely do, is open a Word document to create a stale relic of communication.”

    Well, “we” need lessons on English grammar and punctuation. It is no wonder that you cannot craft in an application such as Microsoft Word a coherent document of any significant length and complexity.

    Also, mentioning privacy violator Facebook shows that you have no grip on reality: Only morons subject themselves to Facebook’s well-publicized abuses. IM clients are woefully insecure, too.

    So, go stick your iDevice up your iCan, and stop bothering adults with your iMovies, iPhotos, and iRants.

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    1. Sorry, but there were no errors in grammar in that quote. In your case, perhaps the royal “we” was actually literal. Look up intransitive verbs. Those things like “email” (which is a verb, “SMS” (same thing), “Facebook” (as Google has become a verb), and “IM” are all intransitive verbs.

      “Also, mentioning privacy violator Facebook shows that you have no grip on reality: Only morons subject themselves to Facebook’s well-publicized abuses.”

      So his argument is flawed because he says that people use Facebook? Or rather, he is living in his own world because he says that people use Facebook? Regardless of whether his premise is correct, your ad hominem is certainly fallacious.

      “IM clients are woefully insecure, too.”

      Don’t generalize. Protocols, maybe? But XMPP can be really secure if set up properly. And both Pidgin and Empathy support these securities.

      “So, go stick your iDevice up your iCan, and stop bothering adults with your iMovies, iPhotos, and iRants.”

      Where did he talk about iPhones/iPads/iPods in any detail again?

      Stop your nonsense. If you don’t agree with the article, then say so. But don’t challenge a person’s grip on reality, call his grammar and punctuation (which is perfectly fine, by the way) wrong, making his argument wrong, or attack the poster. Let’s all try to be civil.

      Cheers,
      Patrick Niedzielski

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      1. It still doesn’t hide the fact that your entire argument in the post is pretty inaccurate. Firstly, Microsoft Office Web Apps exist, and Google Docs is woefully inadequate compared to OWA despite having years worth of head start in it. Microsoft Office can Save To/Open From SkyDrive/SharePoint, and Office OneNote can Sync to SkyDrive (OWA)/SharePoint. Outlook Web Access has existed for years, and there’s no way you can say the user experience in GMail is superior to Outlook Web Access.

        To say Microsoft has made no innovations in its Office Suite is patently false, and to imply that they have made no moves to Webifying their Office Suite is patently dishonest.

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      2. @AnonGuy

        “your entire argument”
        I didn’t write this article…? Nor do I see where I was arguing what you are implying. Am I missing something?

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