The Cold War Between and LibreOffice

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 22, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield

For the past month, I've wanted to express an opinion about LibreOffice and However, I've refrained, because I didn't know what to think either way. I still don't, but my conviction is growing into that this uncertainty is worth expressing. Although many people want to see a hero or a villain in events, I'm not convinced that anyone who is involved deserves the uncritical support of the community.

If you follow free software development at all, then you know what's been happening. Mistrusting Oracle's intentions towards, a group of developers announced The Document Foundation, an independent organization that is developing an fork called LibreOffice. In response, Oracle has declined the invitation to join The Document Foundation, and the Community Council has called on its members who are also members of The Document Foundation to resign to avoid a conflict of interest.

In the past week, these events have seen people on the Discuss mailing list choosing sides and justifying their reasons for doing so. Only the independent Documentation Project has announced a policy of neutrality, inviting writers "to work on other flavours of OOo, should they wish to do so."

Amid these events, I hesitate to take sides, because, so far, all we really have is rhetoric from both sides. The Document Foundation's home page sounds idealistic, but, then, so does Oracle's news release pledging continued support for Both sides have yet to back up the rhetoric with enough actions to make any serious judgment possible.

In this circumstance, I can only judge by past performance, which makes both sides seem less than ideal.

The Oracle back story

On the one hand, although Oracle has been involved in free software for over a decade, it has been unable to gain the community's trust. With its own projects, it has the reputation of being unwilling to relinquish control to the community, and of manipulating community expectations for its own purposes. -- of acting, in other words, how many people in the community are always afraid a large corporation would act.

For instance, while Innobase and Berkeley DB have continued to exist since purchased by Oracle, many suggest that development of both databases has slowed, to keep them from being a threat to Oracle's commercial products.

This is exactly the concern that led Michael (Monty) Widenius, the main writer of MySQL, to be concerned for its future when Oracle acquired MySQL along with with its takeover of Sun Microsystems. Although Oracle pledged to keep MySQL alive, Widenius believes that "They will market MySQL as an entry database that you can use until you afford something real," and phase it out after five years. He points to a halving of the Oracle staff working on MySQL as proof of his predictions.

Granted, does not compete directly with Oracle's products. Even its Base database does not, because it is a much more basic database. All the same, considering how Oracle has acted elsewhere, skepticism about its plans for seems well-founded. The fact that Oracle has yet to match its actions to its rhetoric suggests either it does not understand the community (and may therefore blunder in its future handling of or else it plans to act exactly as people fear (in which case the fear is completely rational).

The morphing of Go-OO into LibreOffice

On the other hand, The Document Foundation does not inspire total trust, either. Judging from the members, particularly founder Michael Meeks -- to say nothing of its motivations and goals -- The Document Foundation is simply Go-OO reborn.

Go-OO is (or was) a semi-independent group of developers, who became impatient with the slow pace of development under Sun's development. Several of its members, including Meek, are Novell employees, and the project has been funded by Novell. Since did not accept all its code, Go-OO quickly became the version of used by many distributions, including Debian and Ubuntu -- which is why Shuttleworth's instant support for The Document Foundation means nothing; in announcing that Ubuntu will ship with Libre Office, he is merely saying that Ubuntu will continue to act as it has in the past.

Over the years, Go-OO has, in fact, introduced enhancements faster than However, "faster" is a relative term, and The Document Foundation's rate of development is unlikely to be that much better than's. Similarly, whether Go-OO was a more democratic place for development is hard for an outsider to decide. Even if it was, will a relatively small organization be able to scale successfully to become an independent Foundation? Although Go-OO has made no obvious blunders, it seems only a modest success.

Moreover, Richard Stallman's words of welcome when LibreOffice was announced strike me as ironic. Less than two years ago, other free software supporters (although not Stallman himself, so far as I can tell) were condemning Go-OO as a tool of Novell and the conspiracy to spread the use of Mono.

Now that the cards have been reshuffled, and Oracle is replacing Novell as the company that parts of the community love to hate, The Document Foundation looks better than Go-OO ever did. Yet there is no reason to think that the goals have changed with the name. If you believed that Go-OO has a hidden agenda, then you can believe with equal justification that The Document Foundation has one, too.

A Bluff That Was Called

What happened, I suspect, was that Go-OO, already chafing under Sun's tight control of's direction, saw more of the same -- if not worse -- awaiting in Oracle. Hoping to succeed before Oracle could articulate its plans, Go-OO members reinvented themselves, and announced the foundation that they had long been calling for. But Oracle refused to be stampeded, and escalated the fork into something that resembles corporate warfare.

Whatever the merits of either side (and I am most inclined to support The Document Foundation, although only on the principle that any number is greater than zero), I suspect that the losers in this situation will be the users. The risk is that time will continue to be spent in flame wars that could be better spent in coding. What seems likely is not only a general division and duplication of effort, but, in Oracle's case, a decision to focus on proprietary development as a defensive measure. By making the gambit that it did, The Document Foundation may have perpetuated another version of the stalemate that it was trying to break.


  • It is very sad

    All this splitting and forking is sad and useless. I do not feel like spending hours finding out which of the two - the OO or LibreOffice - is better or whether you can pass documents from one to the other. All this fragmentation is making it inefficient.
  • Oracle

    I just wish that Oracle was gobbled up by some big corporate in-house computer company such as IBM or Microsoft and then we would have a clear field and know where we are working. I'm very annoyed that such great programs as 'Open Solaris', 'Open Office', 'MySQL', 'VirtualBox', and 'Java' are going to hit the fan because Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle (who 'owns' these great programs) has proclaimed war on Open Source-ware!
  • Look at Open Solaris to see the direction OO will be taken

    All you have to do is look at Open Solaris to see how Oracle thinks as far as OpenSource software. They use and abuse it simply as a hook. They have gutted Open Solaris, and after MySQL version 6 comes out (Required by the EU for the merger to be accepted) they will gut that, and eventually they will gut OO. Oracle does one thing, they suck money out of corporations, and with free, as in beer, software that is hard to do in any great amounts.

    I will admit I am NOT a fan of Oracle, I had a Sun Solve account so I could download basic drivers for some Ultra 20's every once in a while. Well I cannot even download drivers unless I have a contract. Oracle will never give anything away for free if it doesn't have to.

    My $0.02 Worth, perhaps less, perhaps more
  • Re: LibreOffice != Rebranded(Go-OO)

    "According to Tech Rights ( LibreOffice is not a rebrand of Go-OO and according to an interview with Charles H. Schultz on Groklaw (, LibreOffice is without all the Microsoft hooks that could be interpreted as a backdoor to Mono."

    You may be right about the code. But many of the people organizing LibreOffice are involve in Go-OO, and the aims of The Document Foundation are similar to many of those expressed by members of Go-OO, so the connection is pretty clear, as several other people have pointed out.
  • Michael Meeks == Mono

    If Michael Meeks is there then so is (or will be) Mono. He has too much invested in it...
    Shame, really.
  • Mono in LibreOffice, only backed by Novell

    @Advo: Indeed, there is the same Mono stuff in it as in It is kind of frightening that Charles-H. Schulz does not even know what is in the product he is trying to promote ...
  • LibreOffice == goOO == Mono

    Robotech, just go to

    and search for Mono. So it is there.

    Saying that libreOffice is not go-OO because it is based on vanilla OOo is fudd. go-OO was also based on vanilla OOo all the time and then they added their patches. Same was done for libreOffice. So frome a pure code perspective, libreOffice is the next evolution from go-OO. Looking at the people involved this is not only about the code.

    If Novell drops out of the TDF because some company not interested in libreOffice buys them? Then the TDF will have lost the only company sponsor who puts money behind libreOffice.

    What I have not checked yet, are the microsoft formats still the default in libreOffice as they where in go-OO?
  • LibreOffice != Rebranded(Go-OO)

    According to Tech Rights ( LibreOffice is not a rebrand of Go-OO and according to an interview with Charles H. Schultz on Groklaw (, LibreOffice is without all the Microsoft hooks that could be interpreted as a backdoor to Mono.

    Therefore, the FSF endorsement is not as flippity-floppity as you imply.
  • LibO is not Go-OO


    please check your facts: LibO is not Go-OO. LibO is entirely based on OOo vanilla, with the inclusion of patches from 1) Novell (but it's only one part coming from Go-OO 2) Red Hat (hardly a Go-OO fan) 3) the community.

    See my former blog entry here on that topic here:


  • An OpenOffice Foundation

    An OOo Foundation was inevitable. The lack of a Foundation makes it very difficult for people outside the corporate owners to make significant contributions. There are ways that a Foundation can make substantial revenues and be completely independent of any large single commercial interest. One such way is from certification of end users. The ECDL/ICDL foundation did 9 million certificates in 43 countries last year so there is a proven precedent. There is a demand for certification in national governments and we have the technology and professional expertise to deliver it. If the community gets behind it, the LibreO Foundation can employ several times more developers than either Sun or Oracle committed to the project. With an organised strategy for merchandising the marketing project can be made separately self-sufficient.
  • interesting post

    Very interesting post, thanks for sharing.
    Any overview of the features that are in the various versions?
  • Whose's to blame?

    I think the problem lies with the core developers, the developers who came from Sun (and previously StarDivision).
    These developers are similar to the XFree86 developers; they both were experts to their respective fields and did not want to give an inch of control to new contributors.
    While is an open-source project, the developing is closer to closed-source.
    Ask about the bug reports that are getting ignored.
    Whoever had to perform the open-source management work in, did an appalling job.

    It is important to frame the issue as a problem with these developers who stall the development of OpenOffice.


    Read the OOo Community Council IRC logs at
    and the bad attitude of developers such as 'hdu'.
  • Reasoning and founding

    Hi Bruce,

    Two clarifications from my side:

    "Mistrusting Oracle's intentions towards" was not at all the main reason for starting the Document Foundation. It simply is because of the longstanding wish for a foundation, not being dominated by a single vendor,

    Further looking at founding members, make clear that there are many community members, not employed by Novell, nor knows as go-oo supporters. So saying "Go-OO members... announced the foundation that they had long been calling for. " is not conform the facts.

    Great that you look for a neutral approach. Obviously truth hides on both sides of the story blunk
  • Small correction

    To be accurate, the Documentation Project is not independent. The OOoAuthors group and website, which is associated with the OOo Docs Project, IS independent, and it is OOoAuthors that "has announced a policy of neutrality."
  • What if novell drop off

    My question is if the rumors of VMWare buying out SuSE are true and VMWare end up killing the OOo team, will this make the conspiracy theories of Go-oo go away? Also it seems there is no trace of Mono disease in LibreOffice from what I have heard from the community.
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