It's time to make LibreOffice and OpenOffice one again

OpenOffice is dying, and LibreOffice needs a major overhaul. Here's why bringing them together could save the day.

Image: Jack Wallen

Let's talk about OpenOffice. More than likely you've already read, countless times, that Apache OpenOffice is near the end. The last stable iteration was 4.1.2 (released October, 2015) and a recent major security flaw took a month to patch. A lack of coders has brought development to a creeping crawl. And then, the worst possible news hit the ether; the project suggested users switch to MS Office (or LibreOffice).

For whom the bells tolls? The bell tolls for thee, OpenOffice.

I'm going to say something that might ruffle a few feathers. Are you ready for it?

The end of OpenOffice will be a good thing for open source and for users.

Let me explain.

One fork to rule them all

When LibreOffice was forked from OpenOffice we saw yet another instance of the fork not only improving on the original, but vastly surpassing it. LibreOffice was an instant success. Every Linux distribution that once shipped with OpenOffice migrated to the new kid on the block. LibreOffice burst out of the starting gate and immediately hit its stride. Updates came at an almost breakneck speed and the improvements were plenty and important.

After a while, OpenOffice became an afterthought for the open source community. This, of course, was exacerbated when Oracle decided to discontinue the project in 2011 and donated the code to the Apache Project. By this point OpenOffice was struggling to move forward and that brings us to now. A burgeoning LibreOffice and a suffering, stuttering OpenOffice.

But I say there is a light at the end of this rather dim tunnel.

Unfork them

This may sound crazy, but I think it's time LibreOffice and OpenOffice became one again. Yes, I know there are probably political issues and egos at stake, but I believe the two would be better served as one. The benefits of this merger would be many. Off the top of my head:

  • Bring the MS Office filters together: OpenOffice has a strong track record of better importing certain files from MS Office (whereas LibreOffice has been known to be improving, but spotty).
  • More developers for LibreOffice: Although OpenOffice wouldn't bring with it a battalion of developers, it would certainly add to the mix.
  • End the confusion: Many users assume OpenOffice and LibreOffice are the same thing. Some don't even know that LibreOffice exists. This would end that confusion.
  • Combine their numbers: Separate, OpenOffice and LibreOffice have impressive usage numbers. Together, they would be a force.

A golden opportunity

The possible loss of OpenOffice could actually wind up being a golden opportunity for open source office suites in general. Why? I would like to suggest something that I believe has been necessary for a while now. If OpenOffice and LibreOffice were to gather their forces, diff their code, and merge, they could then do some much-needed retooling of not just the internal works of the whole, but also of the interface.

Let's face it, the LibreOffice and (by extension) OpenOffice UIs are both way out of date. When I install LibreOffice the tool bar is an absolute disaster (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A
Image: Jack Wallen
The LibreOffice default toolbar setup.

As much as I support and respect (and use daily) LibreOffice, it has become all too clear the interface needs a complete overhaul. What we're dealing with now is a throwback to the late 90s/early 2000s and it has to go. When a new user opens up LibreOffice for the first time, they are inundated with buttons, icons, and toolbars. Ubuntu Unity helped this out with the Head up Display (HUD), but that did nothing for other desktops and distributions. Sure, the enlightened user has no problem knowing what to look for and where it is (or to even customize the toolbars to reflect their specific needs), but for a new or average user, that interface is a nightmare. Now would be the perfect time for this change. Bring in the last vestiges of the OpenOffice developers and have them join the fight for an improved interface. With the combination of the additional import filters from OpenOffice and a modern interface, LibreOffice could finally make some serious noise on both the home and business desktops.

Will this actually happen?

This needs to happen. Will it? I have no idea. But even if the powers that be decide the UI isn't in need of retooling (which would be a mistake), bringing OpenOffice into the fold would still be a big step forward. The merging of the two efforts would bring about a stronger focus on development, easier marketing, and far less confusion by the public at large.

I realize this might seem a bit antithetical to the very heart and spirit of open source, but merging LibreOffice and OpenOffice would combine the strengths of the two constituent pieces and possibly jettison the weaknesses.

From my perspective, that's a win-win.

Also see