As the LibreOffice project moves forward with the development on its 4.x branches we sometimes get the feedback that while new features are documented in detail as well as in a summarized fashion (on the wiki and on the website), it is not easy to understand what’s unique about the features in LibreOffice. We often hear things like “but their interface is outdated!” or people asking us to compare LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice.
This calls for clarification and some work by the marketing team, even though we know that engaging in a work of marketing product’s features and product’s positionning is just out of place for a project like LibreOffice which is, after all, about delivering value to the community and by the community.
To start with I will point to the -not yet definitive- release notes of LibreOffice 4.1 in its first beta version. You see numerous improvements as well as a host of bugfixes. If we turn to these improvements they don’t seem to have a real unity or a coherence among themselves: better and more document filters, reduction of the dependencies on java, new options for powerful image management. If you consider only these three points, you’ll be left wondering what to make out of them. What is hiding in plain sight, so to speak, is the work that was started with the release of the 4.0: the overhaul of the layout and the widget technology. Such a major step forward only appears in an incremental fashion over the course of several releases. For instance, the 4.0 implemented the overhaul that ultimately leads to the new widgets that you can see in the 4.1, and that will continue to appear in the subsequent releases. Leif Lodahl, the Danish team leader and one of the founders of the Document Foundation, has more about these new graphical improvements here.
When it comes to the reliance of Java, there does not seem to be a master plan either. To be honest, we at LibreOffice do not really like master plans. Why? Because we know that a true Free and Open Source Software project works through its community, and a diverse community of contributors simply has a diverse set of interests otherwise known as “itches to scratch”. Therefore we don’t tell contributors to develop this or that. Patches are submitted and unless they break stuff, do not work with the existing codebase or simply suck, we accept them. That’s why this community does not and cannot work based on a master plan.
The lack of such a plan does not however mean the lack of coherence. LibreOffice developers not only fix bugs, they pay attention at reducing the reliance on Java, making sure the code becomes cleaner; others rewrite or write new dialogs, transforming the LibreOffice interface little by little into a more appealing and efficient user interface and graphical tools. One of these improvements has already been picked up and highlighted by the press. While several users will like it very much, others might be indifferent to it and not use it: I’m talking about about the sidebar that’s been inherited from IBM’s Lotus Symphony and has now been integrated as an experimental feature in the upcoming 4.1 . This sidebar has had quite a long story. It was first designed by IBM for IBM Lotus Symphony (you find it in different versions in other Lotus software), then it was donated to OpenOffice.org, but for some reason the donation was never effective and OpenOffice.org never got it. It then came back to the surface with IBM donating it to Apache OpenOffice. LibreOffice was able to integrate it but we feel it must be polished and improved by the community first. This is why I and others were a bit surprised when we received several articles in the press highlighting this feature as the main one in the upcoming LibreOffice 4.1. Clearly it’s one among many others, and one that will receive continuous improvements over time. Thankfully, the number of LibreOffice contributors has increased over time in a significant way, allowing us not just to fix bugs but release a steady flow of new features (big and small) and improvements. I believe there is a reason for this: a clear, transparent and meritocratic governance serving a project and an inclusive community that produce great software licensed under proven Free Software and copyleft licenses, ensuring that there can be no vendor capture and that contributions are effectively possible, encouraged and real.
Having said that, I realize that while I have highlighted a few trends when it comes to features of the 4.1, the big picture may still not be too clear for many yet. I think the key message is this one: LibreOffice 4.1 builds on the integration of the code coming from the 4.0.x and expands the features and the possibilities that were introduced by the major release: you can expect the LibreOffice project to produce lots of improvements, lots of bugfixes and improve its quality assurance processes; what you cannot expect however, is that LibreOffice will ever become a rank and file software product with a top-down product strategy and features demanded by a few somewhere at the marketing team or at the board level: that’s just not us, and that’s not how we work. LibreOffice is the result of its community and as such its features are as diverse as the community developing them. Joining the community is easy: there are many ways to get involved, and in turn deliver the features you want and have contributed.