Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce LibreOffice shows the strengths of FOSS

When free and open source software projects fork, it is often the case that the child turns out to be much worse than the parent.

Forking is possible because of the licence under which the code is released; anyone who thinks he/she or a collective can do a better job or wants to introduce customisations that the mainline project is unable or unwilling to, can take a copy of the code and run with it.

When the number one FOSS office suite, OpenOffice.org, was inherited by Oracle as part of its purchase of Sun Microsystems, interested coders and those who had been involved prior to the purchase waited for a while before they realised that things were going nowhere.

While Oracle does have many good qualities, it has shown a marked reluctance to put any effort to continue developing the open source properties it obtained from Sun - unless there was a clear chance of making money off them. OpenSolaris died some time ago.

Thus it came about that in September last year, a body called The Document Foundation was set up and OpenOffice.org was forked. The new group called their project LibreOffice and less than a year after they kicked off proceedings, there are indications that this child is going to be much better than the parent.
Michael Meeks
LibreOffice is up to version 3.3.2 and is much faster, slicker and feels less heavy - to use words that a layman would - when compared to OpenOffice.org. There is a lot of interest from the hackers who worked on the parent project and that, perhaps, is the difference. Corporates are not the best entities to run open source projects.

Michael Meeks of Novell, one of the chief hackers at the new project, says: "In all fairness Sun/Oracle did some good work to speed up the start-up so we can't take all the credit here. They chopped out an horribly unpleasant binary database of components in favour of a simple flat XML one which I think helped quite a bit.

"We did chunks of work on top of that though, starting LibreOffice pulls out a lot of stops, eg. we always used to force page-in all our required libraries - which helps first time linking get fast. We also used a factory process to make second-start faster: so just send the arguments to the existing process. Unfortunately, previously we used to force page-in all our (nicely demand paged out) libraries, and then send the command-line arguments. I spent a while fixing this and some other performance sillies around splash rendering in 3.4.0 and (I hope) the effect is rather slicker and quicker."

Says Meeks: "Of course, we also try to remove bloat: we rip out deprecated, and unused code, and are incrementally porting the code to cleaner, more readable, often faster, standard template classes; also we have invested profiling and performance effort in specific features, such as the spreadsheet's data pilot, so it is hard to point at any one thing."

"On the more amusing side, it seems that some of our slow operations in calc (on Linux) are burning 2/3rds of the time just updating the scroll-bar - the fixing of which is underway currently.

Oracle recently gave The Document Foundation a slap in the face by deciding to donate the OpenOffice.org codebase to the Apache Software Foundation; had Oracle wanted to give the code to the most interested party, The Document Foundation was the obvious candidate.

The Foundation has found one positive in it - proprietary code is now open. But any hopes that the two projects would be reunited were dashed. In a statement issued at the time, the Foundation said: "The Apache community, which we respect enormously, has very different expectations and norms - licensing, membership and more - to the existing OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice projects. We regret the missed opportunity but are committed to working with all active community members to devise the best possible future for LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org."

Meeks says the effects of this donation are "quite unclear, and the situation is still developing. One of the more positive aspects (assuming we re-base from the Apache 2.0 licensed code-dump), is that we can adopt a plus-licence. Previously we had an LGPLv3-only licence from Sun, and the AL2.0 will allow us to use LGPLv3+ - which is more future-proof."

He says the Foundation itself was a contributor meritocracy, much on the style of GNOME or KDE.    "Funding-wise primarily two sources: individual donations, and advisory board fees: a similar model to GNOME or KDE too I think. Thus far we have raised nearly $100k (our target was $50k) in donations to create a foundation based in Germany, that legal process is underway."



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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.






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