The companies that do most to develop and evolve the LibreOffice productivity suite, both for desktop and cloud, say the project’s business model is “beyond utterly broken” and that The Document Foundation (TDF), the charity that hosts the project, has to change its approach.
The matter is a subject of intense debate within the board of the foundation, set up in 2010 to oversee LibreOffice, a fork of Oracle’s OpenOffice. It touches on a question that crops up repeatedly in various contexts: as usage of open-source software continues to grow, what is the right business model to fund its development?
The TDF’s manifesto promises “to eliminate the digital divide in society by giving everyone access to office productivity tools free of charge.” The document adds that “we encourage corporate participation” but there is nothing about providing an incentive for such companies.
Meeks is an open-source veteran, having worked on GNOME, OpenOffice, and other prominent projects. Everything was fine at LibreOffice to begin with, and he calls 2012-2014 “the flourishing years.”
Alongside Collabora, there were 15 developers from SUSE, five from Red Hat, one from Canonical, seven from the city of Munich (part of its embrace of open source), and some 40 others from various companies. Many of those have now dropped out, or reduced their commitment, leaving around 40 paid developers in total – of whom Collabora provides 25 and CIB, a Munich-based specialist in document management, seven.
Meeks believes “LibreOffice is at serious risk,” though the matter is complex. TDF has around €1.5m in the bank, Meeks said, but something that may surprise outsiders is that the foundation cannot and does not use that money to employ developers.
Thorsten Behrens, IT lead for LibreOffice at CIB, told The Register: “The TDF is a charity; it’s not in the business of developing software and actually cannot, because that would put it in competition with the commercial ecosystem,” as well as threatening its charitable status.
Most donations go to TDF so if the commercial providers of developers reduce their commitment, TDF remains but the development effort diminishes.
This also means that contributing to LibreOffice by paying for support is currently more effective than donating money to TDF.
Could LibreOffice succeed without paid-for developers?
Behrens pointed to Apache OpenOffice as an example of why this does not work. “It is limping,” he said. “Every two years they release a new version, but everyone who cares moved on to LibreOffice. OpenOffice is the best argument that we have that we need a commercial ecosystem. If we don’t have that, we will end up like them.”
In 2017 I spoke about this – it’s a tough nut to crack, because there are open source fanatics – who just happen to be paid to develop and promote open source – who keep holding onto a definition of “open source” developed in the 70s. Open source projects are much more complex than they were then, have a much larger user base and require much more coordination from people who aren’t being paid (by a university or foundation) to develop them.