LibreOffice's next big version is in the cloud

A key LibreOffice developer is preparing to turn the productivity site into a competitor for Google Apps and Microsoft Office Online

LibreOffice's next big target isn't Microsoft Office. It's Office Online and Google Docs.

Collabora, one of the major contributors to the open source LibreOffice productivity suite, has announced a partnership with messaging-solutions provider IceWarp to produce a Web-based version of LibreOffice by the end of 2015.

Dubbed LibreOffice Online, the application is intended to guarantee complete document cross-compatibility with the desktop version of LibreOffice; any document created in one can be edited in the other without loss of features or data.

Documents created in Office Online and Google Docs can typically be exported to and edited in desktop suites without issues, but after multiple round trips between desktop apps, those services typically work for documents that use only the most rudimentary features. Collabora claims it can achieve this kind of fidelity "by using the same rendering engine as LibreOffice desktop (via LibreOfficeKit)" -- in other words, by reusing the original application's C++ source code.

The full gamut of features won't be rolled out right away. At first, LibreOffice online will more closely resemble LibreOffice Editor for Android, with "a subset of the features available in LibreOffice desktop versions," according to Collabora. Eventually, the feature set will be expanded, though Collabora hasn't provided a time frame. One feature explicitly described is a common selling point for Office Online and Google Docs alike -- the simultaneous, multi-user editing of documents.

One immediate possibility with the product release is the ability to host an instance of LibreOffice Online on the hardware of one's choosing. "There are some great privacy implications in the blue-sky future to being able to host [LibreOffice Online] yourself as an individual," said Michael Meeks, general manager at Collabora Productivity, in an email.

Meeks has been attempting to launch LibreOffice Online for some time. "I've been working away at this problem -- building the prototype while at Suse, and [estimating cost] and pitching this for some years," he said. "The need for [a product like LibreOffice Online] is very clear, and it is great to marry IceWarp's vision and support with Collabora's ability to execute on that." That said, "clearly it is impossible to do anything here without acknowledging the huge body of LibreOffice contributors."

Collabora is planning to maintain and update LibreOffice Online's code after its release, keeping it in sync with the main LibreOffice project. Likewise, the codebase for the new project is likely to be licensed under the same terms as LibreOffice -- the Mozilla Public License, which allows its code to be intermingled with other, proprietary code, but ensures that the MPL-licensed code remains freely available.

"I anticipate uniform MPLv2 licensing for entirely new code which is inline with TDF's licensing," Meeks said, "although we are reusing and building on the Leaflet library which is BSD licensed, so where we contribute back to that I imagine we'd do that in an appropriate way."

Aside from LibreOffice, U.K.-based Collabora also supports development of a number of desktop infrastructure projects, such as the GStreamer multimedia framework and the D-Bus interprocess communication system. IceWarp is mainly known for a Microsoft Exchange-like email and messaging system, IceWarp Mail Server, a cost-effective (albeit closed source) alternative to Exchange.

When asked about plans to monetize the resulting product -- for instance, by way of a feature-plus version of the service -- IceWarp Senior Marking Associate Michael Filip replied in an email: "The project with Collabora is one of the key investments we're making in our mid-term product outlook. The return will be indirect: document editing will become an integral part of IceWarp's end-user experience, and IceWarp will be able to offer a highly cost-effective alternative to Office 365 or Google Apps."