LibreOffice vs. Microsoft Office: It's a format war

Italo Vignoli, a co-founder of The Document Foundation, shares his thoughts on the past, present and future of LibreOffice.

italo libreoffice fosdem
Swapnil Bhartiya

Sun Microsystems was home to many critical open source projects including OpenOffice, MySQL, Java, and VirtualBox. When Oracle acquired Sun, members of these projects grew concerned about their projects. MySQL was forked, and the OpenOffice community created a body called The Document Foundation (TDF) to ensure the survival of the project.

However, Oracle was displeased about the formation of TDF and the ensuing conflict led to LibreOffice becoming a fork of OpenOffice. The first release of LibreOffice came in 2011. By 2012, TDF was registered as an organization in Germany.

On February 1, 2017, LibreOffice reached another major milestone with the release of version 5.3 and a brand new experimental interface, which may play a big role in the adoption of LibreOffice. At the same time, a new era of LibreOffice began with the arrival of LibreOffice Online.

Evolution of LibreOffice in these 7 years

I recall people used to complain about the lack of new features and new UI as compared to Microsoft Office. But because LibreOffice inherited software that needed a lot of cleaning, many initial releases of LibreOffice were dedicated to cleaning up the code base. Vignoli told me that there is no point in introducing new features or working on a new UI until the code has been cleaned up and modernized.

The LibreOffice community worked hard and finally, LibreOffice was liberated from all that code. It started to implement new features, improve compatibility with Microsoft Office and introduce new UI.

LibreOffice has evolved so much that Vignoli feels “it’s not comparable with what we inherited from Oracle or OpenOffice some seven years ago.”

Survival of the fittest

When LibreOffice was announced, almost all major desktop Linux distributions switched from OpenOffice to LibreOffice as the default office suite. Many companies dedicated developer resources to continue the development of LibreOffice. SUSE used to be the largest contributor, followed by Red Hat and Canonical. However, later on, many SUSE developers moved to Collabora Productivity, a company that offers solutions based on LibreOffice. Collabora has been instrumental in bringing many features to LibreOffice, including collaborative editing.

In 2011, TDF created an advisory board for companies and organizations to work together on the development of the project. Initially, Google, SUSE, Red Hat and Free Software Foundation joined the advisory board. Later on, many other companies and organizations joined the board, including Intel, AMD, Gnome Foundation and KDE e.V.

The advisory board also became a source of revenue for TDF; members have to pay a fee to join. However, unlike many other foundations, there is no multi-tier membership where TDF gets a big chunk of money from ‘gold’ or ‘platinum’ members. A surprisingly large portion of revenue comes from individual contributions. Vignoli told me that they have over €1 million in revenue from various sources; out of that amount, around €800,000 is from individual donations. These donations keep increasing. Last year registered a 15 percent year-over-year increase in donations.

That said, TDF is very conservative when it comes to using this money.

So where is the money being spent?

Focus shifting from product to community

Since its early days, LibreOffice has been a community-driven project. A huge amount of contributions come from volunteers, which means they don’t have to invest resources in developing the software code. The downside is that because volunteers work in their free time, LibreOffice can’t move as fast as a product run by a private company with a dedicated development team. Still, LibreOffice manages to release a major version every six months.

Vignoli said that there are over 1,200 volunteers that contribute to the project, but not all are active. Some volunteers make a commit and then don’t do anything for a few weeks or months. But in general, there are around 300 active contributors every month.

And that’s where TDF wants to invest its resources, including financial. “Initially when the project started, we were a very small team. Our focus was on getting the project ready, we didn’t have time and resources to build a community around it. But now the product is stable and mature and we can look at building a community around it,” said Vignoli.

They have a full-time developer mentor whose sole job is to encourage new contributors. Whenever someone makes their first contribution to LibreOffice, the developer mentor reaches out to that person and provides them with all the info that they need to get up to speed in a short time.

TDF also invests resources in building communities globally. Like many open source projects, TDF originated in Europe, but it doesn’t want to remain a European-based project. They participate in open source events around the globe to meet new people, create new collaborations and attract more developers to the project.

As a result of these activities, they are experiencing massive growth in countries like India, Japan and Taiwan.

“It’s actually more challenging to build an impactful community in a huge country like India than in Europe," Vignoli said. "In Europe, you can have 200 contributors and they will cover the whole Europe, but in India considering the size of the country, you need a larger base. You also have to consider languages; there are at least two dozen languages in India and you need support for all these languages. Despite all these barriers, India is doing great.”

While LibreOffice is going well in Europe, South East Asia, North America and South America, there are two regions that remain challenging: China (mainly due to language barriers and lack of information flow in and out of the country) and Africa (mainly due to economic conditions).

Beyond these two regions, LibreOffice has a very dynamic community around the globe and it's a result of all the investments TDF has made in reaching out to developers and curating a community around the project.

What the future holds for LibreOffice

The future belongs to cloud and mobile. As I mentioned previously, one of the major milestones that came with the latest release of LibreOffice is the arrival of LibreOffice Online. But it was not an easy task. Vignoli said that creating an online version of LibreOffice is more challenging than people think. LibreOffice is a massive and complex piece of software and the code had to be considerably stripped down to run on the cloud.

In addition to reducing the size of the software, which means removing features, it also needed new capabilities to run in the cloud. Running an office suite in the cloud was useless without collaborative editing capabilities. At the same time, it needed integration with file sync and storage solutions to manage the document. Last, but not least, it needed a single sign-on capability so that multiple users can log into the server and work on documents.

Once LibreOffice acquired collaborative editing capabilities, the community started stripping down its features to downscale the code base to run gracefully on a server. They looked at other online services like Google Docs and Office 365 for features to emulate. There was intensive testing within the LibreOffice community to test out these features and once everything looked good the source code was made available.

However, TDF doesn’t have any desire or resources to offer an online service similar to Google Docs. It’s a product that you can install on your server, but it’s not a standalone product. You need single sign-on capabilities so people can log into your LibreOffice online service and work on documents. You also need a file sync and storage solution to manage documents. LibreOffice currently works with Nextcloud, Seafile, Pydio and other such services.

What about mobile….?

Mobile is trickier than going to the cloud. You have to further strip everything down to a very small codebase that can run on mobile devices without devouring the battery and system resources. While there is a LibreOffice View app to view documents, the full-fledged LibreOffice mobile app is still in the works. I think the arrival of the online version may help developers as they already have a stripped down version with collaborative editing. But the news is not good at the moment when it comes to LibreOffice for iOS or Android.

What are the challenges ahead?

LibreOffice has evolved into a very stable and mature product; TDF has established itself as a sustainable organization that continues to grow. The big challenge is still the dominance of Microsoft Office.

It’s not a product war; it’s a format war.

Despite the creation of ODF (Open Document Format) as an ISO standard for documents, Microsoft worked on is own ‘standard’, which it called Office Open XML (OOXML), and got it approved as an ISO standard in a controversial manner. So now there are two standards. LibreOffice defaults to ODF, Microsoft Office defaults to OOXML. While LibreOffice does support OOXML and Microsoft Office supports ODF, there are interoperability challenges.

Technologically, LibreOffice has achieved the level of compatibility that will work for a majority of users, leaving some corner cases. However, the fact remains … “interoperability is a big challenge for us as we are trying to offer interoperability with a product that doesn’t want to be interoperable,” said Vignoli.

People continue to face issues when they try to use LibreOffice for documents that were created using Microsoft Office. There can be a lot of reasons for things breaking between the two, but the problem is more cultural than technological. Small mistakes, such as using spaces instead of tabs to align text, can create interoperability issues. In an earlier interview, Vignoli told me about some dirty tricks that Microsoft uses to break interoperability.

As a result of incompotability issues, most people end up going back to Microsoft Office and OOXML. As far as individuals are concerned, the best advice is to follow best practices to create documents and always store your files in standard ODF format.

The right way to switch to LibreOffice is through migration

In an enterprise set-up, a lot of documents are machine generated. Most organizations have developed integration with their own applications and that integration is done around Microsoft Office. They have invested heavily in enterprise-level applications that were written strictly to work with Microsoft Office. Most of this integration or custom software was written years ago, which means a lot of their documents are stored in older Microsoft Office formats.

All of that makes things complicated. You can’t just wipe Microsoft Office from the hard drive and install LibreOffice on it expecting everything will work fine. It won’t. You are inviting yourself to a nightmare.

The right way to switch from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice is through migration. You need to migrate your documents from Microsoft Office format to ODF. But migration is not a one-click solution, it’s a process. It has to be planned.

“CIOs play a key role in such migration as they understand that migration is a process. They can write that process to fit their own needs. It’s like driving a car where you can decide the speed, direction, destination and tackle obstacles as they come in your way. Which means that during migration there will be issues and you will have to maneuver around those issues,” said Vignoli.

Companies need to invest in adding support for LibreOffice and ODF in their own software that was tightly integrated with Microsoft Office. They need to talk to experts who work on LibreOffice, consultancy firms like Collabora Productivity.

They need to invest time in training their employees. "They have to look at potential issues before they happen and not after they happen. If they do it right, they will be under complete control of their documents," said Vignoli.

Vignoli gave an example of the ministry of defense in Italy that migrated some 25,000 to 30,000 desktops to LibreOffice from Microsoft Office. Just like many other organizations they also had a document management application, but it was built to work only with Microsoft Office. They had three different departments: air force, army, and navy. They executed their plan differently for each unit. Now their document management software is compatible with both LibreOffice and Microsoft Office. They planned it, prepared for fixing things and created a process to gradually execute the plan. It worked and now everything is under control.

Now they use ODF for their documents. If they get a document in Microsoft Office format, they carefully convert it into ODF and work on it. All of their documents are switching to ODF. The only place where they do use Microsoft Office formats is where they have to share those documents with external agencies.

“That’s the right way of doing it. If you simply uninstall Microsoft Office and install LibreOffice, you are going to have a lot of problems,” said Vignoli.

Yes, there is an initial cost of migration, but you will see big savings in licensing costs, as LibreOffice is free and more secure. You also make your applications and documents future-proof. You make them vendor agnostic; they will now work with Microsoft solutions and LibreOffice-based solutions. Now instead of relying on Microsoft you can choose your own vendor. As a result, the total cost of ownership comes down significantly, with added benefits.

The biggest advantage of migrating to LibreOffice is that you can join the LibreOffice developer community and directly influence the features that you need in LibreOffice. That’s something you can’t do with Microsoft Office or any other proprietary product.

Conclusion

LibreOffice has come a long way in these seven years. It has become a very mature and stable project, but Microsoft Office still dominates the market. As Vignoli said, the big challenge is not in the code, but in the complexity of documents themselves. The good news is that the cloud is fast replacing the ‘installed’ applications and the arrival of LibreOffice Online may encourage more organizations to run their own productivity suite cloud, just like the private cloud, to take control of their documents. 

Time will tell if the cloud can liberate us from the chains of proprietary office suites.

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