Suse drops LibreOffice -- and helps Collabora pick it up

Although an independent project, LibreOffice has relied on Suse for commercial support, which Collabora will now handle

Earlier this week, AttachMate subsidiary Suse announced it was stopping development of LibreOffice and will facilitate the migration of staff contributors to a new business focussed on the code. Michael Meeks, a key developer on the LibreOffice project, along with many of his colleagues from Suse, have formed a new productivity suite business unit of the U.K. open source specialist Collabora, dubbed Collabora Productivity.

Meeks told me: "The core of the LibreOffice team, critical to contributing to the project and supporting our customers, is alive and well inside Collabora. We expect the effort applied to LibreOffice in the community to continue as before."

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Meeks becomes the CEO of the new business unit and told me the staff joining him are the core contributors to LibreOffice from Suse, performing maybe three-quarters of Suse's commits. Of those left behind, many remain committed to working on LibreOffice. Fridrich Strba -- the author of much of the key interoperability code for legacy file formats -- told me, "I worked on LibreOffice for fun in my spare time, before I joined the Suse team. Now I'll continue to work on it in my spare time; it is the best project I've ever worked on."

This move should finally end the rumormongering by the detractors of LibreOffice suggesting Microsoft is somehow using the project to harm software freedom. Meeks told me those whisperings have long been a mystery to him, but Microsoft has nothing to do with Suse's move or with Collabora's future business.

Can LibreOffice work as an independent business? Several developers involved in the former have commented to me that their larger corporate masters left business on the table, unable to manage the sales process around the many small and different opportunities. Smaller spinouts like Collabora Productivity seem to do the job better, if the example of the move made by the former Suse Mono developers is anything to go by. When Suse dropped development of the .Net-compatible Mono platform, the developers formed a new company, Xamarin, with Suse's blessing.

The company has gone on to perform strongly under the leadership of Miguel de Icaza, recently securing VC funding. He told me, "In the end, Novell/Suse were on a different market than where the product needed to be ... and it made sense for each one of us to focus on what our organizations are built to do ... They wanted to make sure customers that had bought the product would continue to be supported."

In the case of Collabora Productivity, the company starts with a lead customer in the form of Suse itself and has several prospects for its services in the pipeline. Philippe Kalaf, CEO of Collabora, said in the news release, "Collabora believes Free Software holds great promise in the office suite market, and we look forward to providing supported LibreOffice releases across Windows, Mac and Linux to both existing and new LibreOffice customers worldwide. We will naturally extend our proven consultancy portfolio to include feature development for LibreOffice."

Meanwhile, the LibreOffice project is taking the news in its stride. Suse is staying on the advisory board of The Document Foundation and is joined by Collabora. The project is already very diverse and while the Suse developers may have seemed a big slice of the community, they are only around 5 percent of the committers, and most remain involved with the project. The impact on the project itself is minimal, as all infrastructure for development and distribution is managed by the Foundation rather than by contributing companies.

This sort of transition is to be expected from businesses involved in genuine open source projects. The guaranteed freedoms around the code ensure that user needs are protected and the companies resulting from corporate change are largely unable to perform competitive mischief (such as leaving shell companies to act as patent trolls, as seems to be happening in Microsoft's acquisition of Nokia).

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Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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