Companies toiling away the most on LibreOffice code complain ecosystem is 'beyond utterly broken'

Major open-source projects need paid-for developers, but what is the business model?

Interview 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.

Michael Meeks, managing director at Cambridge-based Collabora, the company that contributes most full-time developers to LibreOffice, has set out the situation in (opinionated) detail here and here. "Words fail me to express how beyond-utterly-broken the existing TDF / desktop model is for the ecosystem around selling desktop LibreOffice," he wrote.

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 he was "99 per cent in agreement" with Meeks, adding: "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."

Is the fact that LibreOffice is primarily desktop software, in the cloud era, part of the problem, like trying to market music CDs in the age of streaming?

"It's part of the problem insofar as it needs investment," said Behrens. "The notion that software is finished and only needs maintenance is a fallacy. There's LibreOffice online, there's various mobile platform apps, most of that investment was carried by Collabora. That's the problem. We need to generate money to be able to keep up with the rest of the industry."

The current crisis was sparked by a proposal that TDF should do more to package and promote the cloud version of LibreOffice on its site to make it easier for users to self-host rather than going to a provider such as Collabora or CIB. "That was the point where we said, that's going to kill some revenue," said Behrens, particularly since online LibreOffice is the most profitable part of the business for the commercial companies.

Since TDF operates the LibreOffice website, the decisions it makes about how to present it have an immediate impact on the health of the ecosystem, and if it gets it wrong, you can even argue that TDF is acting against the interests of LibreOffice.

Meeks told us that the proposal "would throw TDF into competing head-on with Collabora."

The way the desktop software is offered does not work for the commercial providers, he said, and this was "a proposal to throw this known unsuccessful model into online as well. In terms of self-defeating moves, it seems a pretty epic one." We note this proposal now seems to have been abandoned.

Behrens feels that although the LibreOffice site says on the download page that it "strongly recommends support from certified partners," it does not sufficiently emphasise the issues with the free download for business use. "If you use this as an enterprise, you will not get any updates after half a year, so there is no way any large enterprise should use the free version. It takes that long just to get a pilot," he told us.

"Free software has an unfortunate connotation of gratis, free of price," Meeks said. "The FSF (Free Software Foundation) has tried for many years to explain that it is all about freedom. LibreOffice has the word Libre in it. But there's quite a strong sense of gratis in its statutes, which is unfortunate."

Like Behrens, Meeks is keen to emphasise the value of support. "Enterprises deploy LibreOffice without any support and services. They fall over small problems like documents that don't work. After a year or so they say, this is rubbish, and wander off. If you do the migration and training right, you win."

Behrens told us there is an ethical dimension too. "If you are an enterprise, there is at least a moral obligation to contribute back, either by contracting support or let your staff contribute time. There are givers and takers and the largest enterprises who have the deepest pockets are contributing the least."

For Meeks, the solution is simple. "Differentiate the marketing. Tell people this is the version for personal use and this is the version for enterprise use."

It is a principle that works well for Red Hat, which has Red Hat Enterprise Linux alongside Fedora and CentOS. For LibreOffice, however, this idea has gone down badly with users, who do not want to see the free version diminished in status.

TDF's Italo Vignoli told us that the input of Meeks and Behrens is the reason for "a new strategic marketing plan, mostly focused on how we communicate to the outside world. A situation which is the result of different level of compromise inside TDF board, where in the past there have been some frictions on the topic of providing support to ecosystem members."

He added that Meeks' opinion "is not shared by all members of TDF board (of which Michael Meeks is a member since day one), which is rather normal in a complex and diverse organisation of global size."

Vignoli confirmed that "TDF has a large cash reserve" but is constrained in how it uses it because of "German law regulating foundations." He added that some concerns on the board were based on "a very restrictive interpretation of the German law, which seems to be solved now."

"The current discussion about the strategy is going in the right direction, and will provide a solid foundation for the years to come," Vignoli said. ®

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