It's been less than two months since the Document Foundation announced that it was launching its own "fork" of the OpenOffice.org productivity software suite, but already its new LibreOffice alternative is beginning to take shape.
On Thursday the third beta version of LibreOffice 3.3 was released, and it's available for download for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows. While not intended for production use, the current version of the free, fully open source software gives an early glimpse at LibreOffice's reinterpretation of office productivity and it's an exciting one.
LibreOffice 3.3 is based on OpenOffice.org 3.3, but it adds numerous code optimisations and new features that offer a first preview of new development directions for 2011 and beyond. First, developers are now working full steam at improving the overall quality of the OpenOffice.org code, with a focus on easy testability and quality assurance. New developers and code hackers are handling the bulk of this activity, the group said.
"Our code base is getting old," explained Charles Schulz, a member of the Document Foundation's steering committee, in a recent blog post. "Worse, the whole frigging software looks and feels like we're stuck in the Bush area. Many things were not fixed, some others need a complete rewrite."
Beyond improving what's already there, however, every single module of LibreOffice will be undergoing an extensive rewrite, starting with the Calc spreadsheet component, which is being redeveloped around a brand new engine. Codenamed Ixion, that new engine will increase performance, allow true versatility and add long-awaited database and VBA macro-handling features, the Document Foundation says.
The Writer module meanwhile is to be improved in the area of layout fidelity across versions and platforms, while Impress, the presentation module, will be enhanced in the area of slideshow fidelity.
Some new features in LibreOffice will focus on maintaining compatibility with Microsoft Office. Others will introduce "radical innovations," the group says. Some will also improve conversion fidelity among formats or reduce Java dependency, undeniably a good idea in light of Oracle's litigious mindset in that area.
In general, The Document Foundation's founders foresee "a completely different future for the office suite paradigm" from what it's been in the past, they said. A key part of that future will be allowing users to focus on the contents of their documents rather than the features of the software, to improve usability, in other words, such that software features don't get in the way of content.
"After 20 years of feature-oriented software, it is now the right time to bring back content at the centre of user focus," said Italo Vignoli, another member of the Document Foundation's steering committee. Indeed, "it's time to realise people hate using office suites," Schulz added. "You can make them more visually compelling, more practical and we want that too. But it's the tool that is the problem in itself.
"When the document is what the software is running for, rather than running with, you end up with much more ability to create, share and innovate," he added. "In fact, designing software following this concept leads you to develop something quite different from office suites. That's a shift of paradigm."
With support from Google, Novell, Red Hat, Canonical, the Open Source Initiative, the GNOME Foundation and NeoOffice, among others, LibreOffice has clearly gotten off to a great start.
The first beta version was downloaded more than 80,000 times in its first week alone, and a full 45 working mirrors in 25 countries were set up, that's close to half the number achieved by OpenOffice.org over 10 years, the group says. Some 100 developers were also hanging out on the #libreoffice IRC channel just a week into the project.
Things are looking exciting, but there's still much to come. "The Document Foundation is about documents and the associated software is pivotal to create, exchange, modify, share and print documents," explained Thorsten Behrens, a software developer and a steering committee member. "LibreOffice 3.3 is the first flavor of this long term strategy, but the journey has just begun."
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