4 keys to success for LibreOffice as a service

Trying to prevail where three proprietary companies failed, the LibreOffice project has announced an online version. Here's what it needs to succeed

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The announcement of LibreOffice Online this week came as welcome news to many people concerned about the paucity of online options for those who want software freedom with their online document solutions. But can open source SaaS succeed?

The open source community needs a truly open alternative to current mainstream online document collaboration solutions, all of which are compromised by lock-in. LibreOffice Online will offer the full flexibility to deploy in-house or hosted cloud instances while using true open standards for its documents.

Moreover, the rich capabilities of LibreOffice -- which include support for the enterprise content management interface CMIS and cloud storage -- mean the offering can rapidly mature and adapt to changing enterprise conditions. Contributions will be needed to package the software for various delivery formats, but there’s a good chance the work will attract multiple contributors wanting to escape the tentacles of Microsoft and Google.

Exciting as this is, an online version of OpenOffice.org has been tried before. StarDivision, the company that originally created StarOffice, built a Web-based version of its software. Sun Microsystems tried again using a different approach and a fresh codebase. Oracle is rumored to have intended a Web-based version of Oracle Open Office, the failure of which was one factor behind the shutdown of the team and the transfer of assets to Apache (where the residual OpenOffice project is effectively dormant, according to LWN, despite high download levels). In a real test of its reputation as the new flag-bearer for open source application software, the Document Foundation and its community are trying to make the online version happen at last.

The test of LibreOffice Online will be whether we see wide deployment. Will it be easy enough for both users and service providers to deploy? Contribution will surely need to be proportional to deployment for such a project.

There will be at least one major deployment early on. The project is funded by SaaS company IceWarp, whose Web email solutions are used by corporations like Marriott International, Verizon Communications, Inmarsat, and Toyota. IceWarp says it identified a growing demand for Web- and cloud-based document editing and collaboration, and it will use LibreOffice Online as the basis of a document capability for its proprietary messaging and collaboration solutions.

The project is managed by U.K. open source powerhouse Collabora. Following the successful model it used for bootstrapping the Android port of LibreOffice with funding from Smoose, Collabora says it will work in the open and make all code available as open source through the Document Foundation. Collabra is not starting from scratch. The company says a rendering engine was developed in 2011, and community members have been seeking a funded and practical application for the code ever since.

Can LibreOffice Online succeed? There are four important factors.

  1. Functionality. The developers hope to add collaborative editing and review capabilities with multiple simultaneous users and cursors. To have any chance as an alternative to Google Docs or Office 365, LIbreOffice will need online collaboration such as that offered by the likes of Etherpad, with the same online quality of experience working with documents as on the desktop.
  2. Community. Both Sun and Oracle decided their Web-based office would be proprietary, making them solely responsible for both developing, then monetizing the capability. Objective analysis showed there simply wasn’t enough money in the Web offering alone to make it worthwhile, which is why both companies canned it. But LibreOffice Online will be open source from the beginning. The Document Foundation has shown it can effectively focus community effort on LibreOffice, turning it from fork to flag-bearer in only a few years. An open source SaaS can succeed where a proprietary one cannot, combining the interests of multiple collaborators to reach critical mass.
  3. Shared code. By creating a full-function open source office suite, IceWarp and Collabora will have the basis for their own commercial work but hopefully also catalyze a wider community collaborating on the code for other purposes. Unlike with the desktop version, more deployments will probably mean more contributors. The approach also shares code with both LibreOffice Desktop and LibreOffice for Android, differing in the user interface while using the same core code. As a result, contributions to any of those editions will improve the others at the same time. Notably, the addition of collaboration code to LibreOffice Online may well result in the same capability emerging in LibreOffice Desktop.
  4. Interoperability. The project will need flexible support for cloud storage, embracing both open source options like OwnCloud and the usual proprietary suspects. It will need to be able to seamlessly exchange documents with both Microsoft Office and Google Docs. Perhaps most significant for LibreOffice, collaboration between users of the three editions will need to be possible (and preferably easy and compelling). The excellent document format interoperability that can already be found in LibreOffice is a great start, but interoperability is also a matter of social dynamics and workflow.

All four factors look positive for LibreOffice Online. Done right, it could also offer a new lease of life to LibreOffice Desktop. While online tools are fine and dandy, there’s plenty of room for a desktop client that offers extra capabilities and offline resilience. Ideally, LibreOffice will begin to think distributed, in a way Google Docs simply can’t and Microsoft would rather not. Let’s hope the Document Foundation and its developer members get it right.

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