It’s the Document, stupid!

Today the Document Foundation has issued a press release that marks the beginning of something exciting; but it’s likely that not a lot of people will understand what’s being explained through the multiple layers of buzz and general statements that were made. Here’s the statement:

“”The Document Foundation is about documents and the associated software is pivotal to create, exchange, modify, share and print documents”, says Thorsten Behrens, a software developer and a member of TDF Steering Committee. “LibreOffice 3.3 is the first flavour of this long term strategy, but the journey has just begun, and the enormous advantages of our developer-embracing environment are not yet fully reflected in the upcoming software release”.

LibreOffice 3.3 is based on OOo 3.3, with code optimisations and many new features, which are going to offer a first preview of the new development directions for 2011 and beyond. TDF founders foresee a completely different future for the office suite paradigm, which – in the actual format – is over 20 years old, to be based on the document (where the software is a layer for the creation or the presentation of the contents).

TDF developers are working full steam at improving the overall quality of OOo code, which is a good starting point, and making easy testability of the code and quality assurance a priority. This is an area where new developers and code hackers, whose number has grown to over 90 in just a month, are instrumental for the bulk of the activity.

In addition, each single module of LibreOffice will be undergoing an extensive rewrite, with Calc being the first one to be redeveloped around a brand new engine – code named Ixion – that will increase performance, allow true versatility and add long awaited database and VBA macro handling features. Writer is going to be improved in the area of layout fidelity and Impress in the area of slideshow fidelity. Most of the new features are either meant to maintain compatibility with the market leading office suite or will introduce radical innovations. They will also improve conversion fidelity between formats, liberate content, and reduce Java dependency.

“The Document Foundation is going to be at the heart of the Free Software universe, where users want to build a different future for office suites, working together with developers”, says Italo Vignoli, a digital immigrant, and the oldest member of TDF Steering Committee. “Users read, write, modify and share documents, and are focused on contents rather than software features. After 20 years of feature oriented software, it is now the right time to bring back content at the centre of user focus”.”

The statements quoted above unveil several items. This is not a press release about the community itself, it’s a press release showing the result of a liberated community at work. And what does a liberated community at work do? Not only does it fix what can be fixed on the spot; it  is not shy in assessing whether the code base it’s working on is going to be relevant in 5 years and whether the state of the art has changed. Therefore we, the community, gathers around a few simple (but in fact quite complex ideas):

  1. Our code base is getting old. Worse, the whole frigging software looks  and feels like we’re stuck in the Bush area. Many things were not fixed, some others need a complete rewrite.
  2. The Document is really the epicenter, the conundrum’s point, and software should be built around it, not as if documents were some sort of odd appendices. It’s not just the user that matters, it’s that when the document is what the software is running for, rather than running with, you end up with much more ability to create, share and innovate.  In fact, designing software following this concept leads you to develop something quite different from office suites. That’s a shift of paradigm.
  3. It’s time to realize people hate using office suites. You can make them more visually compelling, more practical, and we want that too. But it’s the tool that is the problem in itself. No one really knows why we have to stick to specific features; Powerpoint was a nice visual concept in the eighties; it became a management tool. Who could have guessed it?  Therefore, there is an urgency in making office suites fun to use, by allowing users to unleash their creativity, win time and efforts, there fore make their lives easier and more enjoyable.

The way the Document Foundation is going to address these issues is twofold: First, we will have incremental changes on LibreOffice, although these changes will sometimes be quite visible. This will allow to solve real and identified issues by maintaining the overall code stability and homogeneity. Second, we will open new development initiatives aimed at rewriting entire portions of the codebase (leading in the end to a complete rewrite) that we think are the most urgent to be rewritten. Mind, however, that we won’t have a rewrite for the sake of a rewrite. I think that Ixion, the spreadsheet rewrite project, will show that we’re in this game to change it. Yes you read well: Initiatives such as Ixion will not lead to a nice MS Office clone. It will be a radical departure from what we have today.

These two tracks will thus offer the choice between improved stability and radical innovation, and somewhere down the line, these two will merge, somehow. But that story has yet to be written.

Stay tuned!

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