Something wonderful happened today – the OpenOffice.org community announced the creation of the Document Foundation, an independent, community-driven foundation. They will maintain a version of OpenOffice.org, called LibreOffice, which will over time address some of the criticisms so commonly aimed at OpenOffice.org today.
OpenOffice.org seems surprisingly controversial to me. Having been a StarSuite/StarOffice/OpenOffice.org user for over 10 years, I have almost certainly developed some form of immunity to its undoubted shortcomings, but I know many people involved in Free software who refuse to use it on the grounds of general user experience cruftiness. Yes, it has bugs, many of which one is surprised to find in software as mature as OpenOffice.org is. And what’s more, I gather that the codebase is also a bit of an Indian ocean (boosting Sun’s ranking in terms of lines of code contributed as Free software). I’ve also heard criticisms about slow release management and the difficulty of getting fixes integrated – I recall Michael Meeks pointing out to me that many of the fixes he and his team had landed were only available in the Linux build. The contributor agreement has also come under attack (also by Michael) even though it was there for fairly sane reasons (and it was certainly nowhere near as painful a read as the Canonical one). But in spite of all of these things, OpenOffice.org has attracted a real community which has -let’s say it- changed the world.
When people complain to me about the OpenOffice.org user experience, I like to laughingly tell them how much better it is than in 1998. While that might not convince many users, it is the literal truth, that OpenOffice.org has made massive strides in UX, and I am sure that LibreOffice will only push this harder and faster. OpenOffice.org has become a viable alternative for governments and businesses around the world: it meets the needs of the vast, vast majority of users. I consider myself a heavy document user and I consider that OpenOffice.org meets my needs. OpenOffice.org’s market share is also a great deal higher than many people suppose (although I suspect that this figure is inflated by Sun and Oracle’s bizarre habit of distributing OpenOffice.org through Java platform upgrades).
Above all, OpenOffice.org and OASIS drove Microsoft to the standards table. The Open Document Format was passed as an ISO standard in 2006, truly threatening on of Microsoft’s cash cows. I (and may others) think that Microsoft’s response to this – incentivising Microsoft partner companies to go rampaging through ISO member organisation, was a low point in Microsoft’s history. But now we have two ISO document standards, ODF and OOXML, one of which, ODF, has been implemented in multiple programmes and web services, and is playing the role of a standard (the OOXML spec is around 12 times longer than the ODF one and has yet to be implemented to my knowledge).
To be clear, this post isn’t about bashing Microsoft, although their behaviour has lead people to question if ISO is indeed a suitable organisation for any software standard. No, this is about something much more important than any organisation, business or foundation, that exists today.
Web standards are well understood as being important to the development of the web itself. But if we care about the Internet, we should also care about the rights of individuals with respect to documents. One of the strangest features of Microsoft’s enormous market share over the past 20 years has been the effect of creating a set of effectively proprietary standards: Word, Excel and Powerpoint are synonyms for text, spreadsheet and presentation. But the creation and sharing of such basic artifacts of modern communication as these should be something that can be done by anyone, without being beholden to someone else, and innovation in this field should not be controlled by a single entity.
OpenOffice.org and OASIS have achieved this today for a brave or needy or innovative few. The creation of an independent foundation and a new development direction to create a much more usable office suite seem like excellent next steps. Indeed, it’s a delight to read in the FAQ that the Mozilla Foundation provides some of the inspiration for these developments. My favourite perspective (one that I shared upon hearing the news), comes from Guy Lunardi of OpenSuse
Ultimately, we envision LibreOffice doing for the office productivity market what Mozilla Firefox has done for browsers.
…and the Document Foundation doing for document standards what the Mozilla Foundation has achieved with web standards.