Apache OpenOffice, the Schrodinger’s app: No one knows if it’s dead or alive, no one really wants to look inside

Analysis Last year Brett Porter, then chairman of the Apache Software Foundation, contemplated whether a proposed official blog post on the state of Apache OpenOffice (AOO) might discourage people from downloading the software due to lack of activity in the project.

No such post from the software’s developers surfaced. The languid pace of development at AOO, though, has been an issue since 2011 after Oracle (then patron of the project) got into a fork-fight with The Document Foundation, which created LibreOffice from the OpenOffice codebase, and asked developers backing the split to resign.

Back in 2015, Red Hat developer Christian Schaller called OpenOffice “all but dead.” Assertions to that effect have continued since, alongside claims to the contrary. Almost a year ago, Jim Jagielski, a member of the Apache OpenOffice Project Management Committee, insisted things were going well and claimed there was renewed interest in the project.

For all the concern about AOO, no issues have been raised recently before the Apache Foundation board to suggest ongoing difficulties. The project is due to provide an update this month, according to a spokesperson for the foundation.

Slow progress

The last AOO release, version 4.1.5, arrived in December 2017, but the app hasn’t seen a major release since version 4.1 in April 2014. Version 4.1.6 appears to be close at hand, if the last few issued can be ironed out.

On Tuesday this week, current AOO chairman Peter Kovacs, acknowledging the lack of communication with the outside world and revisited the possibility of a status update by offering up a draft blog post to the AOO developer mailing for comment prior to publication.

In his note, Kovacs describes a series of issues that need to be dealt with before the 4.2.0 release, available in unfinished form to developers. Without going into specifics, he characterizes the required updates as a challenge and says as much about the antiquated build process.

“If we take a look at the build process, the situation is quite difficult,” he said. “OpenOffice is very complex software, clustered in a lot of modules.”

The 4.1.x line is based on the Windows 7 SDK and macOS 10.7 (Lion), both of which are no longer supported. The developers of AOO want to 4.2.x line to be based on the Windows 10 SDK and a more recent macOS build – the software has been tested with macOS 10.13 (High Sierra). When it will see release is anybody’s guess. The AOO devs say they want to do one release a year, apart from necessary security patches.

Planned enhancements, Kovacs says, depend mainly on volunteer contributions.

The problem of volunteers

Were interest surging, as Jagielski suggested, that might not be a problem. But evidence of volunteer enthusiasm is hard to come by. Back in 2014, AOO published a graph of code committers, peaking at 140 in August that year. Four years later, there’s been almost no growth: the current list of Apache OpenOffice Committers includes 141 names.

And yet AOO has fans, or at least users. LibreOffice earlier this year celebrated 969,108 downloads two weeks after the release of version 6.0.

During the two weeks that followed after the release of AOO 4.1.5, there were 1,487,514 downloads. Since 2012, AOO is said to have been downloaded 250 million times.

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“I hope this gives you a feeling what is going on,” Kovacs concludes in his draft post. “It is like a big Gordian knot, and we are forging the sword to cut it. It might be not innovative, but we believe with each step we make forward OpenOffice is becoming a more sturdy Office suite. It is a long road ahead of course.”

In response to a query from The Register, Kovacs wrote back to express concern that our questions seem to imply AOO or the Apache Foundation might be trying to hide something. That’s just not so, he insists.

“Please understand that our drivers are mostly of altruistic and hedonistic nature,” he explained in an email. “This is of course a completely different work culture that you might assume. A lot of characteristic on project drivers are differently weighted in our case. Time to market does not receive as much priority as quality, and we follow a sort of open source ‘Zen.'”

Kovacs suggests public expectation is misaligned with the pace and work-style of volunteer-run projects. Contributors, he says, tend to be busy with other responsibilities beyond the AOO project.

Reports of AOO’s death appear to have been greatly exaggerated; the project just looks that way because it’s moving slowly. ®

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