Can Openoffice.org rival Microsoft with Libre Office?

News Analysis

Can Openoffice.org rival Microsoft with Libre Office?

Jenny Williams

Open source enthusiasts have claimed independence for the free office software Openoffice.org, from Oracle's Sun Microsystems after 10 years.

"The community has been discussing this opportunity for years, but Sun and Oracle have not been in the listening mood. It is time to move and become independent, in order to express the entire potential of the project and the community," says Italo Vignoli, member of Libre Office volunteer group, The Document Foundation.

"The reason why we have launched The Document Foundation is exactly because we believe that free software cannot thrive when there is a single company controlling the development, because enterprises are not looking at user needs as much as they are looking at their financial statements," he adds.

Since the announcement last week, the beta of Libre Office has been downloaded over 80,000 times and about 80 code contributions have been accepted into Libre Office from 27 volunteers.

But even with support from the likes of Red Hat, Google and Novell, can Libre Office rival Microsoft?

Best wishes from Oracle

Sun Microsystems launched the Openoffice.org project in 1990 with the aim of creating a community-based international office suite able to run on all major platforms and access all functionality and data using open application programming interfaces and XML.

Oracle declined to comment on the independence of Openoffice.org and said in a statement last week, "Oracle is investing substantial resources in Openoffice.org. With more than 100,000,000 users, we believe Openoffice.org is the most advanced, most feature-rich open source implementation and will strongly encourage the Open Office community to continue to contribute through www.openoffice.org.

"Our sincerest goal for Open Office is that it becomes more widely used so if this new foundation will help advance Open Office, and the Open Document Format, we wish them the best," the statement added.

Florian Effenberger, steering committee member at the Document Foundation, expects Libre Office to receive more contributions from companies and individuals as an independent organisation.

"Looking at the feedback we have got so far, we're taking the right path. Not only users and enterprises, but also our community, shows wide support for this step. The reactions have been very positive so far," says Effenberger.

Window of opportunity

Laurent Lachal, analyst at Ovum, says, "At a time when a lot of enterprises question the cost of Microsoft Office but have yet to seriously consider alternative online office suites, there is a window of opportunity for Libre Office to establish itself."

But Lachal doubts Libre Office's ability to challenge market leaders, such as Microsoft. "They are no challenge to the up and coming internet-centric office suites either, partly because of an awkward monolithic design. They lack an e-mail and calendaring component and still suffer from small document compatibility issues, in terms of a round-trip to Microsoft Office and back, which may not matter for consumers but it does matter for businesses," adds Lachal.

But Libre Office is determined it is viable contender with 20% market share in European markets.

"The reasons for this success are quality and compatibility with MS legacy formats - a plus given the fact that Openoffice.org supports Microsoft formats which aren't supported any more by Microsoft Office," says Vignoli.

"Of course, there are some problems with some documents, and there are problems with the new Office document format, which is not supported in the right way even by Microsoft Office 2010," he adds.

Credibility

Vignoli believes Libre Office can now tackle the US market where the product market share is weaker. "Openoffice.org has been acknowledged as a credible competitor by Steve Ballmer, and Microsoft is following up with a specific marketing campaign against Openoffice.org," says Vignoli.

Libre Office is still in beta. Even so, it offers businesses the opportunity to cut costs spent on Microsoft licensing and replace office software suites with an open source alternative.

While Libre Office has industry backing and is optimistic about the benefits its independence can bring to open source software, scepticism remains. In order to compete with market leaders, such as Microsoft, Libre Office will need to prove it is a serious contender - and that means working to improve its enterprise offerings.

What does Openoffice look like? View our photo gallery


Five ways Libre Office can improve to challenge Microsoft

  1. Rebuild community momentum and supplier ecosystem - the current steering committee of developers and national language project managers in charge of the foundation are unlikely to deliver the boldness of vision and swiftness of execution required by the project at this juncture. Suppliers need to co-operate to help the team and push the agenda forwards.
  2. Improve product for management for enterprise adoption - there is next to nothing for the enterprise administrator. Openoffice.org suffers from a lack of integration with document content as well as collaboration systems despite a wealth of open source offerings in these areas.
  3. Rethink the product - rethink the product entirely and start from scratch to create an internet-centric suite of modular, easily embedded components.
  4. Target developers - it also needs to promote embedding and use by developers and companies. For example, while there are many open source PHP scripts that enable developers to create Microsoft Office documents, not so many of them are available to create Openoffice ones.
  5. Focus on innovation - Firefox was not adopted because it was free but because it introduced new features such as multiple tabs.

Source: Laurent Lachal, analyst at Ovum


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