I don’t “need” LibreOffice

By Eric Bright

I don’t need LibreOffice. I WANT LibreOffice.

I am not exactly sure if anyone really “needs” LibreOffice as a product. LO is more an idea, an ideal, than it is a product. For one thing we have had exactly zero customer since the time of OpenOffice all the way to today.

No one needs LO. I am almost sure about it. I, as one, already have MS Office 365 down my throat by virtue of teaching at a college here in Toronto, Ontario. I don’t “need” to use LO.

If you don’t have a ton of money to pay for an MS Office license fee, then you have many other options:

  1. you can use the almost-dead-but-still-pretty-functional Apache OpenOffice;
  2. you can use Abiword. It’s way simpler with fewer options than Apache OpenOffice or LO, but sometimes does the job;
  3. you can use Google Docs. It is almost perfect for education, as I have learned during this pandemic, and does most of the things a college student might want to do; or
  4. you can use MS Office’s cloud version (cannot recall its actual name), for heaven’s sake. That is a stripped-down version of Microsoft’s Office 365; very similar to Google Docs. It does most of the things you need it to do.

There are many more options out there, but you got my point. If you are a bit flexible, you won’t “need” LibreOffice. And guess what: most of those options also support Open Document Formats too. So, you will get that benefit too.

Here is the situation:

There are plenty of freely-available, capable, and standard-compliant office suites out there that can do a lot in case my needs are moderate. If I need something in Desktop Publishing category, then LO cannot do that anyway; nor can MS Office, Google Docs, or other similar offerings. For that, I will need something like Affinity Publisher, or Scribus if I am into open source (Scribus is okay for small projects. If your manuscript is hundreds of pages with pictures all over it and tons of side-notes, etc., then look elsewhere. Scribus is not up for that kind of workload).

So, what is my deal?

Please stop looking at LibreOffice as a product that needs to sell itself. It does not have to sell itself in the market, and it has never sold itself so far as I know.

Instead, think of LibreOffice as an idea, an ideal, a vision, a gold standard.

LibreOffice does not owe anything to any “customer,” simply because there have been none.

LibreOffice does not need to worry about commercial or governmental donors, because they have always been insignificant, few and far in between (Munich, Hungry, NISZ, and a handful others?).

LibreOffice does not have to worry about upsetting or alienating this or that corner of “the market.” There has not been a “market” for LibreOffice as a product so far, and LO is not up for sale anyway.

What happens if we flip?

Given our current situation, what happens if we flip all of a sudden? We might say, “you know what, enough is enough. To hell with all ulterior motives. To hell with sponsors, donors, market share (if we have any), and users (like Eric and the rest). We are LibreOffice! We are an idea! We say what a good document structure must look like. If it does not match your binary, propriety code, then tough life! Deal with that! This is how things must be done and here is where we want to be at in 2, 5, and 10 years. Do you want to come with us? You are welcome! Are you disgusted? You are welcome! You want to leave us? Be our guest!”

What will happen then?

Let us have a thought-experiment and imagine what might happen:

  • Many FOSS diehards will immediately explode. So scary!
  • Many governments will be alienate. But, will they stop sending millions of dollars our way? (By the way, there is NO millions of dollars from any government)
  • Many universities will stop installing LO on their workstations. But, will they stop donating to the project in millions and millions like right now? (Spoiler alert! No university that I know of has ever sent us millions of dollars in donations; not even thousands of dollars. Please update me in the comments section if I am “misinformed.”)
  • Many cities will roll back their LO deployment. But, will they stop all those millions they donate to TDF in support of the project? (You know the drill by now)
  • Everyone will abandon us! Or, will they?

Will everyone abandon LO if we flip? And even then?

LO is not a commercial product. It is not paid for by a boss. It is not paid for by a group of bosses. We do not have a company overlord who might burn our castle down if we do not comply. LO does not have to dance to the drumbeats of any commercial entity. They can all vanish tomorrow and we would be getting as much donations from them as we get today.

For the life of me, I cannot understand why TDF and the LO project is so timid when facing the “market.” It seems that we have assumed a professional face and have adopted a PR strategy that both are suitable for a commercial entity. But, we are NOT a commercial entity.

Those who matter will not abandon LO merely because LO started to stand up for what it is most passionate about. Do you think if all of our “major” contributors, who are not many anyway by your own account, will throw the towel and leave LO because we said we want to set the standards, we want to be different, we are not a product, we are not scared of the market forces and manipulation because we are not for profit and do not have a “market” anyway?

I don’t think so. When I donate anything to LO, it is not because I “need” LO as a product. Hell no! I can easily use that money to buy something else that I need or want.

I donate to LO because I WANT something that, to my naïve mind, only LO can provide: A vision!

If LO changes its governance, which will never happen as long as it is governed by TDF, I will not leave it. I will still stick around. I am not sold to the idea of a product, which I do not need anyway. I am sold to the idea of a vision, which is receding, ever faster, away from me these days.

Think again, please!

As of this moment, I like the idea of Go-OO a lot better than what TDF has become today (I know the story; give me a break). Go-OO, RIP, was an idea. You could still download and install OpenOffice and the differences between OO and Go-OO was not something you could always see or care about. OpenOffice would have worked just as well, kind of. Nevertheless, I liked Go-OO, simply because the governance of Go-OO was “based on meritocracy.”

There were a bunch of highly-motivated, deeply in-love, and passionate coders, many of whom are still with LO, who were coding away. I believe they even had a vision, a mission (please correct me if I am wrong). They knew what they wanted and how they wanted to make it happen. That was the spirit behind Go-OO (ask those who started Go-OO to tell you the correct version of this story, if you think I am “misinformed”).

I don’t even care if I was misinformed about what Go-OO was. That was how I perceived it to be anyway, and that was what I cared about.

A tale you have lived through

When the Go-OO team joined LO, it was the celebration of lights! It was a ‘wow moment’ for me! I was so happy and proud.

Then came the period of code clean-ups. It was painful, hard, challenging, and totally awesome! A lot of issues were fixed then, simply because a lot of codes were ripped out of the code base (those who know the full story, please tell it in the comments. I only remember what I saw from outside). The code was being cleaned up. The code was being vacuumed. A big housecleaning of the sort. Man, wasn’t the atmosphere palpable and the toils sweet at the same time!

Then, the code started to mature, again, as the team figured that they had enough of the housekeeping activities. It was time to “develop” new, shiny, cool stuff, a lot more than to pay any technical debt. The technical debts were paid eventually, right?

That took a few years though. Most of you remember those colourful days. When the spirit of TDF started to notice that it had enough of the clean-ups, it gradually shifted to “real” work. What was the real work then? Well, there was a laundry list of requested features and a huge number of open tickets for bugs. The number of bugs per 1000 lines of code, back then, had a lot of room for improvement, and so it was the focus.

Very rapidly, LO gained a lot of cool features integrated into it from the IBM version (what was it, IBM Lotus Symphony? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IBM_Lotus_Symphony), and other projects. LO started to suddenly shine! It was a “wow” after “wow” period. The numbers of bugs started to go down, crashes got under control, fatal showstoppers were identified, and so on. Every release was a breakthrough so to speak. We started to gain bibesect ability (https://wiki.documentfoundation.org/QA/Bibisect), we got many unit tests, an automated build server, and on and on. Jeez! What a time it was!

As you already guessed, there are only so much features you can cram into an office suite before you start to sound ridiculous. LO was almost feature-complete. But wait! It cannot be so!

We already knew, at the back of our minds, that MS Office compatibility had always been an issue. Unfortunately, that was/is a moving goalpost, like the wind. Well, we started chasing the wind anyway. But Microsoft never stopped changing its bleeping formats. Microsoft never stopped moving the goalpost. Should we chase after them? Uhhh… well… we “need” some compatibility with the Office, right? So, yes. Let us chase the wind.

That was not the only issue, LO’s “look” was another controversial issue. People didn’t like it (for a very good reason: it was ugly). But, it was not enough to make it look beautiful. Some would have argued that a “ribbon,” a Microsoft abomination, was also a must-have thing. We resisted the temptation, not because it was the right thing to do or because the ribbon design was a step back in GUI design principles, but because there was no one who could/would make it. We pretended that we resisted the temptation because of our principles, which turned out not to be the case. Our “principles” changed, overnight, as soon as a generous programmer spent hundreds of hours to add a “ribbon” to the GUI, and some. Then we immediately started to brag about the fancy options we could offer in that department: not only a “ribbon” but also a whole lot of other ways to arrange the GUI. What happened to the “principles” then? I don’t know.

Anyway, tens of hard-working coders were, and still are, working on the code. They are putting their hearts and souls into the code. Most of them are not being paid a dime for their hard labour, and do it out of passion, love, and personal convictions. Even right now as I am typing these words.

My timeline might not be accurate at all. If you are worried about that, there are many at TDF who know the exact way those events unfolded. My point does not depend on the accuracy of that tale or its chronology.

Then what happened?

Please allow me to keep “rambling” a bit longer. I am trying to make my point:

Then, as it is the case with most huge, complex, old, legacy, clunky, system-API-dependent code, LO started to stumble. A few individuals, a lot smarter and with a lot more experience than I, started to notice the hiccups a long time ago. I don’t think if it was anyone’s fault, so please stop accusing me of “blaming the developers for not doing more.”

As I have learned, and I might not be correct so please enlighten me in the comments, TDF is sitting on a bit of cash it has been receiving as donations; right now. That is lovely! I wish for that money to grow 100 folds. Nevertheless, I do not see the point in keeping it there, for the sake of just keeping it there (or for any other sake).

When I ask, “Why isn’t the money being spent, even a large chunk of it, to hire more top-notch, full-time programmers?” What is the answer? I don’t know. Perhaps, “It is the way TDF is legally structured that makes it so and so to allocate money in such and such a way… blah… blah… blah… Germany law… blah… blah… blah… the way the foundation is registered … blah… blah… blah….” I don’t know. You tell me.

When I ask, “why don’t we spend a lot of those donations on focused hackfests, all year round, and pay the volunteers in beer and pizza to fix the bleeping 10-years-old, and older, bugs?” What is the answer? I don’t know. Perhaps, “We are already doing it. Are you blind?” Or maybe, “Nothing good comes out of it. We don’t have the needed experts who would be able to do that”? Or what? What is the actual answer? Do you know?

When I say, “Why bother spending thousands of dollars to send people to international open source festivals/conferences, reserve booths, pay for the hotels and travel costs, etc. and get to places where almost everyone knows everything about LO and is perhaps already using it, so we will get exactly zero return for our investments?” Then, what is the answer? Do you know the answer? Could it be that, “Advocacy dumb dumb! What “Planet” have you come from, Eric? Have you ever heard of “advocacy” in your life?” Well, guess what: I have! If that is not the answer, then what is it? Tell me the answer for that and write it in a TDF’s blog post. I don’t want to read through a thousand lines of mailing lists to fish the answer, if there is any. What is the PR department doing then? That’s a job for the PR department to inform and to educate dumb people like me about these things, isn’t it?

When I ask, “What is the ROI for all the donations that are being put into TDF, what are the codes written as a direct result of those donations, who is spending the money anyway, and what for?” What is the answer? Please kindly leave the URL in the comments that leads to the answer to those questions, if there is any.

When I ask, “Can we update the toolchain? the APIs, the frameworks, this and that, please?” What is the answer? Perhaps, “Oh no! We cannot touch the API. They will break everything. We cannot move on to any other modern programming language like Rust, because, well, we don’t have the resources to do so and we have to write everything from scratch.”

When I ask, “Then, why don’t we write everything from scratch? Leave LO as it is, freeze the code, start a new project, LO++, in Rust, and write a new LO with a well-defined feature set?” What is the answer? Could it be, “Are you out of your mind? With what money?” and when I reply, “With the donation money that we have accumulated in the bank,” then I am told, “…Germany law… blah… blah… blah… the way the foundation is registered … blah… blah… blah….”

When I ask, “Why not push ALL new features into extensions instead of adding them to the core?” What is the answer? I know this one: “We don’t quite know why not!”

When I say, “What are the metrics we use to tell us what we are getting out of all of these volunteer works as well as dollars donated and spent?” what are the answers?

All of a sudden, everyone brings up the 30+ years of experience they might have in this or that organisation. At once, I am being told that some of the volunteers have 20+ years of experience (or whatever exaggerated numbers they want to throw there). So what? I also have experience in this and that. So what? What’s that supposed to mean? That I cannot ask any of those questions, because someone happened to have experience in marketing, programming, or whatever else? More power to them! And then, answer my questions please.

I want to know

Some will certainly attack me from left and right, quoting my sentences out of the context, playing juvenile word-games, merely to shut me up. I respect those attempts. You have the right to voice your opinions and I do my best to make sure your voice will be heard in contrast with mine. I will work with you to attack every single claim I am making in my posts, to make the truth come out. I am with you on that. So please take everything I am saying in here apart and show where I am going wrong. Do not let me “confabulate.” “Rambling” as I may, correct me with definitive answers instead of playing disingenuous games; say something that I don’t already know.

I want to know. I want to know what TDF is doing. And why it is doing those thing. I want to know if there is a definitive plan of action for the tens of challenges that TDF and the LO project is facing. I want to know how much is being spent on what and why (thank Zeus, we do have reports for a lot of these at least. Professional people are taking care of this aspect. The German law for a non-profit org needs a lot of transparency. I know that much).

I want to know why the LO project does not have a clear plan of action as for what LO must become in 2, 5, or 10 years. I want to know why we do not have such a plan, if we do not, and where it is, if we do. I want to know, why what I am asking does not make any sense, if it does not, and why such plans are not being worked on, if I am not crazy.

I want to know why we do not have as many full-time, high-quality coders, as many coders as our money in the bank allows, working on the code. What are keeping us from that?

I want to know what the QA team is doing? What even it means for the QA to do what they are doing? What are they “assuring” us about anyway? I know their work is valuable and necessary, but I don’t know what they do that is supposed to be valuable. Bug triage? Very valuable indeed. That is not what I understand by Quality Assurance? Do they validate the reported bugs? Absolutely vital indeed! That is not QA though. Confirm the bugs? That is not QA. Say which report is not a bug? That is not QA either. So, where is this mysterious QA? What “quality” do they control? Mind you, I teach QA/QC to college students, so please, kindly don’t play the “you don’t know what you are talking about” game with me.

TDF does not have to answer me, nor does it have to answer anyone else. It has its BoD, its members, its contributors, and as one of our distinguished TDF programmer mentioned, I am only an ill-informed, typical whiner who misinforms those from whom I seek advice. Inform me please! But, TDF does not have any obligation towards me to inform me of anything. It is my job to go through thousands of pages of document to get a sense of what is going on, and more often than not, come back empty-handed.

Yet again, don’t forget, I am still one of the “valuable” volunteers, and in virtue of that, I want and deserve to know what I am volunteering for and why. Right?

Let there be light

Let there be LibreOffice! Let us not fool ourselves: there is no point in alienating or not alienating anyone when it comes to the LO project. No one gives a dime to how we do what we do in here.

Let the journalists say whatever they want. They do not matter. We do not sell a product and our sales will not plummet at once if we don’t look the way they want us to look.

Let them scream and run around. LO’s share price will not nose-dive even a bit, because LO isn’t a publicly-traded company. We don’t have or sell shares.

Let us lose a few users. That will be alright. The LO is larger than that.

Let us lose a few coders. We don’t have many anyway (you remember the “Pareto” lesson someone gave me somewhere? Yes! That!) There are only a few major code contributors to our project. Remember that those who will leave do not matter, and those who matter will not leave.

Let us be organized. Now, I am laughing my head off. “Let us be organized,” Eric said. As if we haven’t been in the past. The current “organization” is more stifling the progress and the health of the LO project. TDF was made, and correct me if I am wrong, to be a beacon to show the light, a steward of an idea. The way it was registered in Germany and the idea behind it was sublime and noble. It did work for a while so beautifully and delivered us to where we are now. It did great things. It achieved monumental milestones. Today however, it is not flexible enough to carry us further. It does not seem to know where it is going. The beacon has run its course. The light is off. The legal structure, right now, is merely perpetuating its own existence. It is not advancing the idea of the LO project, what I donate to, what most of us donate to.

Let us change that for the better. If it is possible to change TDF, so it becomes what Go-OO once was, again, then let us do that. If the statute allows us, then let us re-structure, even with the same people at the helm, and have a different management system in place that can address real-world problems and answer hard questions about our ROI, feature creep, API modernizations, extensions, code freeze, etc.

LO does not have to be scared of its own shadows. LO does not have to be worried about investors, because it doesn’t have many. LO does not have to calculate its moves based on how it wants to make its next step right.

LO needs to worry about how to calculate what is the right step to take next, instead.

Doing the right thing is not always the same as doing things right. You can be a guard at Auschwitz and do your guarding very right. You will still be put on trial for war crime after the war. You needed to do the right things right.

We are not a commercial entity and we should not go by their rules. Anything we have done so far is good enough for most practical purposes that might need an Office suite. That is enough. LO is feature-complete. Stop it please! The peak of life, excitement, and novelty of word-processors, presentation tools, spreadsheets, and database GUIs was long ago. We can never compete with the likes of Microsoft (do you know Microsoft’s market cap by the way? If not, then look it up. You will be pleasantly “informed”). Microsoft et. al. will keep changing its goalpost. How far and how long are we supposed to chase the wind for? 5 year? 10 year? Give me a number, so I would know what horse I am betting on.

We cannot be Microsoft. That has never been the goal either. Yet again, isn’t it what we are striving for? Let Microsoft be Microsoft. Let Google, Zoho, SoftMaker, Abiword, and the others be what they want to be. Let us stop chasing the wind and start setting our own standards.

LO does not have a mandate to be MS compatible, SoftMaker, Worperfect, PakeMaker, or whatever-else compatible. Please correct me if I am wrong, please post the part(s) of our mandate that says otherwise in the comments below. “Inform” me, shall we?

We need to be independent. We need to set our own standard, advocate for our own goals.

Thank Zeus I will never be anyone at TDF to make any decision. Otherwise, I would have dropped all compatibilities with all other file formats and only left ODF. Anyone who wanted to open those formats could use a command-line converter I would have made available as a curtsey, merely to assist those in need; with very limited abilities: i.e. to only extract the text and a few other elements, and would have frozen the feature-list for that code. You want document freedom? Use ODF. You cannot use it? What about sending files back and forth between you and your colleagues at work who work MS Office? Too bad. You have all the opportunities to convert those people to ODF.

Alternatively, and even better than that strategy, I would have moved all format compatibilities into extensions. All of them. Out!

Our ODF support, if I were the philosopher king, would have been standard compliant, perfectly. There wouldn’t have been ANY other software in the market, with which I was not competing anyway, who could do a better job than I do in regards to ODF (spoiler: it is not the case right now; far from it).

By the way, answer me: have we implemented ALL ODF 1.3 specifications yet, or we are “almost there”? Why not completely there?

All new features? Out into extensions please! No new feature into the core code. Period!

Let me say it again

I don’t “need” LibreOffice. I WANT “a” LibreOffice. I want that idea. I want a strong project that sets the tone and makes Microsoft jealous (as if it is possible :D ). I want the organization to be the steward of the idea of freedom of choice, not free beer or whatever the other “free” hecks there are.

I don’t “need” LO because I can do a lot better already; ten times over, with other software. THAT is not why I am betting on this horse. “Needing” an office suite is the least of my worries, and I guess many others could potentially find themselves in the same boat if they are sincere.

We “want” LO, however. I want the project, I want the community, I want the wonderful people who come to it, in the hope of making something useful. TDF seems to have all what it needs to be the leader here. I want a leader. I want a stance. I want TDF to take a firm position and advocate for THAT. “This is what the right thing to do is, and we are here to do it. Join us in our journey for a better world and improve a great tool that will do the right thing, the right way.”

Let LO be the beacon it once wanted to be. Let there be light folks. Let there be light!

Conclusion

My “rambling” is ending. The philosophy of having an organization such as TDF is totally lost. It was to achieve certain things. At this moment, if TDF is achieving those things, I do not see how. I also cannot see where TDF is taking the community in different time frames.

Since TDF is not for profit, does not have any customer, and is not accountable to Microsoft or Google for anything, nor does it have to chase them, therefore, it must choose an independent strategy, a clear path, a transparent roadmap, and a different governance style. LO needs to lead the way in the market, not the other way around.

If all of these can be achieved through TDF, so the better. TDF is in the perfect place to carry the flame. If it cannot, then I pray to all gawds of “old and new” to see someone, who knows what they are doing, to fork it. LO is a fork itself, i.e. we have done it already. If we do it again, however, let us get back to our roots.

Please cite this article as: Bright, Eric. (2020) I don’t “need” LibreOffice. BlogSophy. https://sophy.ca/blog/2020/09/i-dont-need-libreoffice/

8 thoughts on “I don’t “need” LibreOffice”

  1. I agree with much of what you said, but not all of it. I think the most crucial parts involve project management/governance – decision making processes and resource allocation:

    * There must be a medium-term/long-term plan of what the project / the foundation pursues, hopefully with some concrete objectives to aim for. The plan doesn’t need to be perfect and maybe not even to your or my liking

    * Artificial bureaucratic excuses about how the TDF is registered mustn’t stand in the way of hiring developers. If need be, change the registration; or register a second entity; or register in a different country.

    * Technical debt is usually more important than adding new features, especially when they’re useful to smaller groups of potential users.

    * The Ribbon is a terrible idea.

    But… :

    * We effectively do need LO. There are all sorts of substitutes, but for many kinds of work they are either half-unusable (try writing Hebrew or Arabic documents in OpenOffice 3.x , see how you like them apples) or are annoying and cumbersome and multiply the amount of work you need to carry out by a bunch.

    * I do believe it is a worthwhile effort to “chase the wind” of MS Office formats. Of course, it needs to be balanced against other priorities, but I want to be able to switch people over to LO by promising them near-perfect MS Office format compatibility. And this is not even about chasing the wind: Support is still rather broken for, say, table features, even for .doc documents. Let that be fixed, then we can have the whether-to-chase-the-wind argument.

    And I will also add: As a person who does a lot of LO QA (Look at RTL, Hebrew and Arabic bugs and you’ll see what I mean) – I feel there is little effective transparency and contributor outreach. I have absolutely no idea how decisions are made to maybe allocate time to fix bugs of interest to my part of the community.

  2. Thanks for the blog post. Well written (I didn’t read everything, to long).

    As long as there is an active community and feedback like yours everything is fine I think. The next step has to be that TDF have to discuss feedback there to and find solutions.

    I myself found out that I did a lot of work in the last 5 years (icon themes, notebookbars, …) but in the end not everything was usefull. Notebookbars are nice, but nobody know’s that there are different layouts available, icon themes for each desktop environment on the planet are nice, but a lot of work, same with the VCL backend for each desktop environment. LibreOffice should look well integrated into YOUR private desktop. That’s all fine, but cost a lot of resources. What I miss is a strategy I as a non paid contributor can focus on.

    TDF has money, which is fine and I’m happy that it is not the other way around, but yes there should be some focus on sustainable development, which mean if there is a lack of developers TDF has to fund developers.

    1. First of all, it’s an honour to have you here my friend. I really appreciate the incredible work you have been pouring into LO.

      Secondly, I agree with everything you said; very well put! You have seen the issues first-hand. I wish the community also had the power to shake things up as well. Time will tell.

  3. When you write
    > Anyway, tens of hard-working coders were, and still are, working on the code. They are putting their hearts and souls into the code. Most of them are not being paid a dime for their hard labour, and do it out of passion, love, and personal convictions. Even right now as I am typing these words.

    Yes, but they’re able to do that because there are the paid contributors doing quite a bit of the heavy lifting of keeping things going. Incidentally, you can measure the discrepancy because you have Apache OpenOffice as a control “group” to see what happens when you only have volunteers working on something as big and complex as LibreOffice. AOO seems to have a number of willing contributors, but the project suffers from starvation of developer time, a pain felt acutely by the volunteer developers.

  4. This certainly contains a vision (part of mission vision strategy of an organisation). About what LibreOffice wants to be/archieve; standing for. Making it easier to navigate, IMHO

    Giving me an answers to a question like how to position MSO against LibreOffice, which bugging me for a while now. Project or Product.

    The official mission/vision should come from the echelons at TDF of course


    And zooming into a detail: I’m slightly less radical on the compatibility vision for practical reasons. On import an export. However I would prefer the to see alien formats as export filter. So export to. Instead of direct save. Like MacOS Pages.
    As 100% compatibility never will be archived. LibreOffice can do things which are simply not allowed in DOCX. Say comments in footnotes. Or the whole highlighting shading issue. And would be a waste off all archived at compatibility front. I’m reading it more as a part of a (possible) vision.

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