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OpenOffice: The Zombie Software That Won’t Die
Can Libre Office leave its shadow?
Apache Open Office has not had a major release in over 9 years, yet it is still one of the most popular free and open source implementations of an office suite. In fact, just last year it celebrated more than 333,333,333 downloads.
which it proudly displays as a banner on its website.
But there is another offering which has the same origin as Apache Open Office, but with many more contributors, faster development, and faster turnaround on security related patches. Its name is LibreOffice. In fact, while Apache Open Office has languished for years, LibreOffice will be releasing version 7.6 in just a few months from nowSo if LibreOffice is the better option why are people still using Apache Open Office? To understand we first have to look back into history.
In the beginning there was a Star 🌠
And OpenOffice.org made the firmament, and divided Apache Open Office which was under the firmament from the LibreOffice which was above the firmament: and it was so.
Apache Open Office started life as a commercial piece of software called StarOffice back in 1985. It achieved a moderate amount of success and was eventually acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. Sun rebranded it to OpenOffice.org (OOo) and released the source code the following year. When Sun was acquired by Oracle in 2010 OpenOffice.org was rebranded to Oracle Open Office. Due to Oracle’s less than stellar track record around open source, fear that the project would be discontinued, and the desire for a more collaborative and community driven project, OpenOffice.org was forked into what we now know as LibreOffice. With many of its non Sun contributors now working on LibreOffice, Oracle’s desire to support the project waned. They decided to donate the trademarks and source code to the Apache Software Foundation a couple of years after the acquisition of Sun in 2012. That same year, on May 8th, The Apache foundation would release the first version of Open Office under the Apache banner with version 3.4. They would go on to release one more major version, 4.0 on July 23, 2013. It has been on version 4 ever since.
During the same time period, LibreOffice would continue to be developed over the years releasing multiple major versions, and many new features, outpacing Open Office’s development. With such a dire outlook for Open Office, you would be forgiven if you expected the Apache Open Office’s Github to be devoid of lifeIt is in fact extremely active.
As you can see, there are still commits multiple times a week. But if the project is still being worked on, why did Dennis E. Hamilton write a post titled [DISCUSS] What Would OpenOffice Retirement Involve? (long) on the Apache mailing list? And if the project is still being actively developed, why is it still on version 4 after 10 years? Is this simply a case of semantic versioning gone wrong? It turns out that if you dig deeper into the commits, you’ll find that the vast majority of the commit messages are titled “Cleaned Up Resource File”, “Fixed Typos and Removed Whitespace” or just “Clean up”. Looking at the commit diffs you’ll see removal of extra whitespace, changes to the formatting, but not a lot of new development. With all these cons about Open Office you would expect this to be a slam dunk for LibreOffice with its larger contributor base, and faster updates. But you only have to look at that 333,333,333 downloads number to realize that is not the case.
LibreOffice has had a hard time of breaking out of Open Office’s shadow. It’s gotten so bad that in 2020 LibreOffice issued an Open Letter to the Apache Open Office projectasking them to redirect new users to the LibreOffice project. While many agreed with its message, there were those who found it upsetting that one Open Source project was advocating against another. But the reality is that if you type “best free office software” into a search engine, you’re going to find many lists that still include Open Office. The Open Office brand is still strong today, and it benefits from sharing the same name as its predecessor OpenOffice.org. I won’t link to the Andrew Kelly article about marketing in software as I’ve done in the past few articles (lest you think I’m some secret Zig Evangelist) but the truth is Libre Office has a branding problem. Some people believe that it’s due to people being less familiar with the word Libre vs Open. Others believe it’s because office software peaked back in 2012 so there was never any need to upgrade to newer versions. Regardless of what the true answer may be, the problem is preventing LibreOffice from pulling ahead.
As someone who first dipped their toe into Linux almost a decade ago, I too have gotten these two projects mixed up, and it’s unfortunate that it’s still the case today. Thankfully when I ran into issues with Apache Open Office those many years ago, I was kindly pointed to LibreOffice and I never looked back. So, unless there is some critical feature that exists in Open Office that does not exist in LibreOffice, I’d urge you to download LibreOffice instead. It has more features, and is a more secure piece of software. And if you are one of Open Office’s 333million downloads, I’d love to hear why you are still using it, so please leave a comment down below. Lastly open source projects live and die by their donations, so if you have the means, I’d encourage donating to LibreOffice, to make sure it continues to receive updates far into its future, and to ensure we continue to have word processing options that don’t need an internet connection.
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