Interview: Charles H. Schulz on LibreOffice and the Document Foundation
Anyone who has ever looked for alternatives to Microsoft Office probably knows about OpenOffice.org, a full featured competitor that is completely free. It started out as a proprietary StarOffice suite developed by a German StarDivision company until it was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2000 which opened up the code to community oriented development that resulted in many improvements and two new major releases (OpenOffice.org 2 and 3).
Last year Sun Microsystems, and by that the OpenOffice.org project as well, was acquired by Oracle causing many to wonder what they intend to do with it. Not long after a group of developers left the project to form The Document Foundation and a LibreOffice project.
Charles H. Schulz has been with OpenOffice.org for many years and has intimate knowledge of what is going on. He was kind enough to answer some questions about the The Document Foundation, LibreOffice and their future.
TF: Tell us something about yourself and your work.
Charles H. Schulz: I live in Paris, France, am 32 years old and have been a contributor to the OpenOffice.org project for 10 years. I’m also working for a FOSS consultancy, Ars Aperta, and am currently member of the board of the OASIS consortium.
TF: What is The Document Foundation and why is it founded?
Charles H. Schulz: The Document Foundation is the entity providing resources and the essential structure for the LibreOffice project. We created the Document Foundation as we knew it was time for the OpenOffice.org project to be more ambitious while at the same time protect and nurture its community.
TF: What was the tipping point towards creating The Document Foundation? Was there ever any hope that Oracle might be a good steward?
Charles H. Schulz: The tipping point is an interesting question: you’re the first one to ask it! Given that the Document Foundation is made of many people with a diverse background and history with OpenOffice.org, I would say that there were in fact several different tipping points depending of the persons. For me, the tipping point was reached when I stopped feeling that I had any sort of value in the eyes of the new steward. I felt I was somewhere an expense on a sheet, and given that I was contributing to that project for free, it made me think really fast about all this. I think there was hope for some time that Oracle would be a good steward. Essentially the reasoning was that Oracle would be more business-oriented than Sun and that it would be making mature decisions with respect to the OpenOffice.org project, for instance by creating a foundation, setting up a more effective and open governance for the project. But all this, as we know, failed to materialize.
TF: What is the current relationship between LibreOffice and Oracle? Is there any chance they might support or join The Document Foundation and allow LibreOffice to use the old brand (OpenOffice.org)?
Charles H. Schulz: I believe there isn’t any specific relationship between LibreOffice and Oracle. Oracle made it clear they would not support us and would not be allow us to use the OpenOffice.org brand. But the Document Foundation is willing to leave the door open for Oracle to join and we do value they work their engineers have done for all these years. Last but not least, Oracle and the Document Foundation share a common asset of importance: the OpenDocument Format (ODF). Thanks to this standard each of us, and several others are able to offer their customers and users software and solutions that are innovative, protect their data and prevent the lock-in by vendors.
TF: Was there a way to prevent the fork? Was there anything Oracle could do that would make the OpenOffice.org community confident about its direction? As a big company Oracle’s resources are probably handy to have at disposal.
Charles H. Schulz: There was one way to prevent the fork, and it would have been to start an open conversation with the community leading to a foundation. Ultimately it’s not a matter of resources but a matter of will and a desire to engage with the community on sustainable and equitable grounds.
TF: Is it correct to say that The Document Foundation is in a nutshell a morph of the Go-OO project by Novell (as suggested by Bruce Byfield in his critique last October)? Does this mean Mono (an open source implementation of Microsoft’s C#) will be eventually pushed in LibreOffice?
Charles H. Schulz: To answer your question about Mono and C# there is one clear answer: No, LibreOffice won’t include Mono; what exists inside LibreOffice AND OpenOffice.org is the capability to include Mono, and this one has ironically not been developed by Novell, but by Sun Microsystems in the past. Now, with respect to the Go-OO project many inaccurate things have been written. While it is true that the Go-OO project community has merged within the Document Foundation, the LibreOffice project is much bigger than the Go-OO project. Technically speaking, LibreOffice in its first beta version (October 2010) is not Go-OO. It is a clean OpenOffice.org base with a merging of specific patches coming from Go-OO (but not all of them) and compiled through the ooo-build system used by Go-OO. So while it’s rather close to the Go-OO binaries LibreOffice is still different, we just didn’t take these binaries and add a different splashscreen on them.
TF: Do you think there were or are any negative effects to forking OpenOffice.org? If so, how are they being addressed?
Charles H. Schulz: Some aspects of the transitions have lasting consequences, such as the infrastructure support. It took us a couple of months to get the localization tools sorted out, and the QA processes have not been completely rolled out yet (although we do perform thorough QA tests even without them). We always thought there would be transition issues, and we address them one by one. Ultimately we will close the gap with OpenOffice.org with respect to these issues.
TF: Why should an end user not involved in the Free Open Source Community at large care about LibreOffice, its license and development process?
Charles H. Schulz: As an user all you need to know is that LibreOffice delivers more innovation and is the result of a truly open community, which in turn sets you free from the agenda of software vendors.
TF: Somewhat relevant to the above question: How well can LibreOffice compete against a web based Office solutions like Google Docs, ZOHO Office and Microsoft’s Office Web Apps, which are also basically free (a major selling point of LibreOffice)? Are there any plans or ideas for a web based variant of LibreOffice? This ties into criticism expressed at GigaOM.
Charles H. Schulz: This is an excellent question and the Document Foundation is acutely aware of this challenge. We have started to investigate thoroughly our requirements concerning a LibreOffice online component and now have a pretty good vision of where we would like to go with this. We even open one specific project inside the Google Summer of Code to at least start the groundwork for this. In a nutshell, we do not believe that online office suites are the answer to everything. But we do realize that online office suites meet a growing segment of users’ needs and are an opportunity for us to innovate and deal with the code legacy we have inherited from OpenOffice.org . Expect more news on this in the months to come.
TF: How would you describe the document-centric focus of The Document Foundation that you blogged about recently, in a nutshell? What does this mean for end users?
Charles H. Schulz: It means more innovation and a better focus on what users want. Part of this is a rewrite of our core components that has already started with the ixion engine for our spreadsheet module . Another part is a focus on better user interface design, which is an area that needs some real improvement. The key message here is that users should not be focusing on the application, but on the document, as that’s what she cares about.
TF: What has changed in LibreOffice compared to OpenOffice.org since its founding?
Charles H. Schulz: We have done and are still doing the heaviest code cleaning inside the code base and inserted many new features already. Also, we are going to switch to a 6-months release scheme. Expect more changes in the releases to come.
TF: What changes and improvements are expected in the near term and long term? Will there be any significant user interface changes?
Charles H. Schulz: I think that you will see several changes happening, for instance with what you can do with comments inside a document. You will see performance improvements as well, more and more filters added, etc. As for the user interface, we will develop specific user interface changes that will be delivered mostly on an incremental basis. But the changes will be notable and regular so that they will be available and more stable sooner than if we were going at it with a strategy of rewriting everything for 3 years and releasing minor bugfixes meanwhile.
TF: What about business users, and integration with other open source enterprise software?
Charles H. Schulz: I think that at this stage what will be interesting to watch is the adoption of LibreOffice in the enterprise. What is clear to us is that LibreOffice is often seen as a formidable opportunity by enterprise users to make a sustainable investment in a project that takes their input and contributions into account. It would be the first time an office suite would allow them to take a direct part in its development. The same goes for the integration of other open source software with LibreOffice.
TF: How would you assess the adoption of LibreOffice so far, from within the Open Source communities, but also by the existing OpenOffice.org users at large, including businesses?
Charles H. Schulz: I think that for some part it’s too early to tell. First, we’re barely 6 months old Second, we need to get accurate data on the use of LibreOffice through the new releases of Linux distributions; while all of them will ship with LibreOffice instead of OpenOffice in 2011, we will get a better idea of where we stand. At this stage, the very first and rough numbers are encouraging and tend to show that OpenOffice.org users have clearly started to switch to LibreOffice.
TF: Where do you hope to see The Document Foundation and LibreOffice in 5 years?
Charles H. Schulz: I see the Document Foundation as an entity that will have set a new standard for community participation and software freedom ; and I see LibreOffice getting rid of most of its code legacy and having emerged as the most innovative Free and Open Source office suite by providing various experiences on different form factors.