OpenOffice was the first big, mainstream free software competitor to Microsoft Office, and because of that, it still has mainstream name recognition—which is a problem.
Developers have almost all moved to LibreOffice, the spiritual successor to OpenOffice. But OpenOffice continues to be operated as its own project, seeing little development and only drawing potential LibreOffice users to a defunct piece of software.
Why do both exist?
Yes, there are two big open-source office suites. Blame Oracle. Sun controlled the OpenOffice.org project, and Oracle acquired control of it when it purchased Sun back in 2010.
Oracle didn’t seem very interested in OpenOffice.org, and the community of volunteers developing it formed The Document Foundation back in 2010. They called on Oracle to participate and donate the OpenOffice.org name and brand to the community. Oracle never did, and the resulting forked office suite has been named LibreOffice since then. Linux distributions almost immediately jumped on board, swapping out OpenOffice for LibreOffice.
In 2011, Oracle laid off OpenOffice’s paid developers and donated the OpenOffice software to the Apache Foundation, rather than The Document Foundation. It’s remained there since, a project in slow but steady decline.
Development is just slower
The most recent version of Apache OpenOffice is 4.1.1, a minor update released on August 21, 2014. LibreOffice has released several major versions with significant improvements in the last year, while OpenOffice has released nothing.
A post on the Apache OpenOffice blog from back in April, 2015 pleads for more developers. “OpenOffice is currently in the need to expand the number of its developers,” it says. “We believe that seeing our release cycle slow down would damage the whole OpenOffice ecosystem.”
That’s already happened. LWN surveyed development activity on both OpenOffice and LibreOffice back in March, 2015. Aside from more frequent releases over at LibreOffice, the LibreOffice project has over 250 developers and support from multiple companies. Only sixteen developers have contributed to OpenOffice in the last year. Developers working for IBM were responsible for 60 percent of the changes in OpenOffice, and IBM has been de-emphasizing this work for some time. It’s clear which project is more active and lively.
Mostly geeks have heard of LibreOffice
If you’re using Linux, you almost certainly have LibreOffice instead of OpenOffice. Your Linux distribution and its package manager made that decision for you so you don’t have to pay attention to the squabbling between projects.
But many people—Windows users especially—have never heard of LibreOffice. They might want a free software office suite, search for OpenOffice, and install it. They’ll find an increasingly out-of-date, stagnant project. They won’t get the latest office suite so many free software developers have worked on. They may shrug off OpenOffice and not be impressed with free software in general.
Calls for the Apache Foundation and Apache OpenOffice to concede defeat and promote LibreOffice instead have been increasing. Christian Schaller—a developer on Fedora and GNOME—recently posted an open letter to the Apache Foundation and Apache OpenOffice team, calling on them to close up shop and point potential users to LibreOffice instead. He did this after discovering OpenOffice installed on his mother’s computer and realizing just how many potential users are still searching for, downloading, and installing OpenOffice because of its name recognition.
Apache should do the right thing and pack up shop. LibreOffice is ahead and developers have already voted with their feet by switching over. OpenOffice hasn’t built up an active developer community—it’s only in decline.
There’s no reason people should be using OpenOffice instead of LibreOffice.