For several years now, I've been a happy user of OpenOffice.org, a free, open-source office suite. Here in the T-G newsroom, several of us use NeoOffice, a Mac suite based on the OpenOffice code. OpenOffice.org also offers its own Mac version, but NeoOffice is tweaked a little to better use some of the built-in features of the Apple operating system.
OpenOffice.org is a software suite including a word processor, a spreadsheet, database software, presentation software and so on. It performs many of the same functions as Microsoft Office, but it costs nothing to download or use.
For years, OpenOffice.org had Sun Microsystems as its founder and primary patron. OpenOffice.org began with a commercial product, StarOffice, which Sun Microsystems acquired a decade ago. The company then released OpenOffice.org as free, "open source" software, meaning that anyone can use the software for free and that various computer programmers are invited to participate in improving it. The "dot-org" is required in the name of the software because an unrelated Dutch company owns the name "OpenOffice" without it.
Sun continued to sell commercial versions of StarOffice based on technology that had been hashed out through the OpenOffice.org development process. The commercial version would come with tech support and with a few added bells and whistles.
Since that time, Sun was purchased by another technology company, Oracle, which changed the name of StarOffice to Oracle Open Office and which had its own plans and ideas for OpenOffice.org. According to various news reports, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison unsuccessfully tried to get the OpenOffice.org developers to switch some of software's inner workings from the computer programming language C++ to JavaFX, an Oracle-owned platform.
Now, the key OpenOffice.org developers have declared their independence from Oracle and created a new non-profit group, The Document Foundation (documentfoundation.org), through which they will continue development of the suite. Because Oracle owns the OpenOffice.org trademark, The Document Foundation is using the name LibreOffice for its software. A beta version of LibreOffice is now being offered at the Document Foundation web site.
According to the reports I've seen online, the developers didn't like the red tape of a single corporate patron, be it Sun or Oracle, and wanted the freedom to improve the software at their own pace and without corporate interference. Since open source software can be freely copied and improved upon, they had the ability to take it with them when they left -- just as Oracle can continue to develop its own version of the software in-house.
The Document Foundation already has sponsorships or endorsements from several big names, including Google and Novell. Future versions of the Ubuntu operating system will include LibreOffice instead of OpenOffice.org. NeoOffice will base its future releases on LibreOffice as well. The developers said last week they would love to have Oracle as one of their sponsors; they hoped out loud that Oracle would allow them to use the established and familiar OpenOffice.org trademark. But Oracle told Computerworld magazine on Monday it plans to keep working on and releasing OpenOffice.org. The company offered best wishes to LibreOffice -- saying it would help promote the Open Document file format which both programs use -- but Oracle doesn't plan to sponsor, endorse or give away its trademark to the new project.
What does this mean for you? If you're currently using OpenOffice.org, you don't need to do anything right now. I have downloaded the LibreOffice beta, just because that's the kind of thing I do, but at the moment there's little difference between it and the current version of OpenOffice.org. The Windows LibreOffice beta overwrites the version of OpenOffice currently on your system, by the way, so don't download it if you're nervous about using beta software.
If you've never tried OpenOffice.org, however, there's no harm in taking the LibreOffice beta version for a test drive. I think you'll find that, for free software, it's got a lot of great features.
Developers hope to have an official release version of LibreOffice out before the end of the year. They claim they'll be able to improve and update the software more efficiently as a stand-alone foundation, without interference from a single corporate patron. If this is true, it could mean more features and benefits for users in the long run. Once the release version comes out, there may be a clearer picture of whether OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice represents the software's future.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.