LibreOffice: An Idea Whose Time Has Come (and Gone)

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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