The history of what we call “OpenOffice” is complex and confusing. It started as a project of Sun corporation, to develop an office suit that was not Microsoft Office, to use internally. Later, a version became more generally available known as Star Office, but also, a version called “OpenOffice” soon became available as well. The current histories say that Star Office was commercial, but my memory is that it never cost money to regular users. I think the idea was that large corporations would pay, individuals not. This was all back around 2000, plus or minus a year or two.
In any event, the Open Office project built two things of great importance. First, it made a set of software applications roughly comparable to the key elements in Microsoft’s Office Suite, including a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation app, and, depending, something that draws and something that relates to databases.
The second thing it did was to create and develop an important open source document format.
But, believe it or not, in the world of software development and programming, even in the happy fuzzy world of OpenSource, there can be fights. And, not just the fun and tongue in cheek fights over which religion you are (vi vs. Linux). These fights often involve differences in points of view between megacorporations that get involved in OpenSource projects, and the unwashed masses of programmers contributing to such things. The majority of code is written and maintained by corporations, much of that in the hands of a very small number, but the contributions from individuals not linked to corporations is extremely important.
In the case of OpenOffice, the tensions were between the broader Office-interested development community and big corporations shifted in 2010 when Sun corporation which had always been involved in OO development, was purchased by Oracle Corporation. Oracle has not been friendly to OpenSource in the past, so the wider community freaked. There is a side plot here involving Java, which we will ignore. Oracle didn’t end up doing anything clearly bad against the OpenOffice project. But, they also ended up not doing anything good, either, which is essentially a death sentence for a project like this. Later in the same year, an organization called The Document Foundation was created and took on the job of forking OpenOffice.
Forking is where a given lineage of software is split to create an alternative. Sometimes this is to bring some software in a different direction, perhaps for a more specialized use. Sometimes it is a way of resolving conflict, much as hunter gatherers undergo fission and fusion in their settlement patterns, by separating antagonists or putting a distinct wall between antagonistic goals. In this case, while the latter is probably part of it, the main reason for the fork and its main effect was to get the project under the control of an active development community so work could be continued before the project stagnated.
That fork became known as LibreOffice. For some time now, it has been recommended that if you are going to install an OpenSource office suite on your Windows, Linux, or Apple Computer, it should be LibreOffice.
One could argue that the OpenOffice suit or its analog (earlier, Star office, later the LibreOffice fork) is the most important single project in OpenSource, because an office suite is a key part of almost all desktop computer configurations. Of course, most servers don’t need or require an office suite, and there, web servers and database servers, and a few other things, are more important. But to the average end user (in business or private life) being able to open up a “Word Document” (a term misapplied to the category of “wordprocessor document”), or to run a spreadsheet, or to make a presentation, etc. is essential, and that is what an office suit provides. OpenOffice was comparable to Microsoft Office, and now, LibreOffice is comparable to Microsoft Office. By some accounts, better, though many Microsoft Office users have, well, a different religion.
Now, it is being reported that the mostly ignored, maligned by some, historically important yet now out of date OpenOffice project is about to byte the dust. As it were.
Dennis Hamilton, VP of the group that runs OpenOffice, “… proposed a shutdown of OpenOffice as one option if the project could not meet the goals it had set. ‘My concern is that the project could end with a bang or a whimper. My interest is in seeing any retirement happen gracefully. That means we need to consider it as a contingency. For contingency plans, no time is a good time, but earlier is always better than later.'” [Source]
Approximately 160 million copies of LibreOffice have been downloaded to date. The closing of the OpenOffice project, should that happen, will probably have little effect on LibreOffice, since most people had already walked away from the venerable old but flawed grandaddy of OO Suites.