Open source is keeping pressure on Microsoft with new release of LibreOffice productivity suite. It took a village to build it
Today saw the release of a landmark update of LibreOffice, the community successor to OpenOffice.org that's developed by TDF (The Document Foundation) and its global volunteer community. LibreOffice version 4 looks fresh, includes new enterprise features, and offers improved performance.
TDF is a nonprofit that allows a wide range of corporate sponsors to join with individual volunteers to build, localize, and test LibreOffice. I spent some time with core developer Michael Meeks of Suse to understand the highlights of the new release.
Raising the stakes on features
The biggest news concerns enterprise content and document management integration as well as file format interoperability features. The CMS integration is achieved using the CMIS standard created by multiple vendors at OASIS. It allows easy integration with a wide range of systems -- Meeks told me the Suse team has tested Alfresco, IBM FileNet, Microsoft Sharepoint, SAP Netweaver, and more -- and should work with any system supporting CMIS. The file format compatibility includes improved support for DOCX and RTF (which has been rewritten from scratch) as well as support for Microsoft Publisher and Visio 2013.
The spreadsheet now includes the ability to import arbitrary XML-formatted data and includes support for conditional formatting, including in-cell shading. There's new OpenFormula support and export options, and the whole thing is snappier, with multiple speed improvements and support for up to a million spreadsheet rows.
On Linux, there's new integration with Ubuntu Unity, and there's support for a new Android remote control app for presentations (which will be added to the Windows and Mac versions of LibreOffice in the next release). There are some more playful features, too. You can now personalize LibreOffice using themes downloaded from Mozilla's Firefox website, and there's a tiny built-in implementation of the Logo programming language so educators can teach programming with just LibreOffice installed.
Meeks was keen to point out work behind the scenes to deliver performance and stability now and set the stage for improvement in the future. Notably, the display code has been reworked to use layouts rather than hard-coded dialogs. This means user experience designers will now be able to easily customize and improve LibreOffice, and localizers will not have to worry about breaking the display of text.
According to Meeks, the code has been cleaned extensively, and new techniques for debugging huge code bases have been devised. He cautioned there's still much to do, but maintained that LibreOffice development is now within reach of even the most elementary programming and testing skills.
The project is also working to play well with the wider open source community. Features like the CMIS integration and the file import filters are intentionally designed as free-standing libraries so that other projects can use them without needing any understanding of LibreOffice or borrowing its code. Meeks told me several other projects are already sharing these libraries.
In the wake of concern about the Java platform, some people have been concerned that LibreOffice is dependent on it. While taking pains to note that Java is an important technology that will continue to be supported, Meeks explained that LibreOffice has been reworked so that almost nothing fails if Java is not available. There's now a non-Java grammar checker, and most wizards are being recoded without Java. While all existing Java-based plug-ins for OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice should continue to work, unused Java APIs are also being removed to reduce the dependency surface.
Overall, LibreOffice 4.0 promises to be a significant step up from previous versions (InfoWorld will post a complete review next week). LibreOffice 4.0 is available for Windows, Mac, and most Linux distributions, and it will be available in most of the world's languages and for BSD. LibreOffice -- and OpenOffice.org before it -- have helped compel Microsoft to avoid complacency and has driven the company to use open formats. Let's hope that push continues.