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Interview with Michael Meeks: the future of LibreOffice revealed

With a new version and a fresh set of features, LibreOffice is becoming the productivity suite of choice for millions of users. But what next?

Michael Meeks used to be a thief. Not in the sense that he would snatch a Mars bar from a newsagent when the owner wasn’t looking or reach into the pocket of a passer-by. No: the Cambridge graduate, as so many have done in the past and continue to do, had lots of stolen software on his computer. Pirated stuff. Apps which he had got for free but should have paid for. And it seriously played on his mind.

He grew to dislike having a computer infiltrated with non-free software and there was a reason for it. During his university gap year, he had become a Christian. The voice of conscience was so strong that he decided the software which had been acquired illegally would be deleted and that, when he left university and started employment, he would make a difference. He did so in style – for it was to Linux that he turned.

Beginning his Linux career at GNOME desktop start-up Ximian, he went on to work as part of Novell’s team. His ethos that software should be free spurred him on and he vowed that he would throw himself into the development of software that wouldn’t cost users anything to use. Then they, unlike him in his younger days, wouldn’t need to pirate.

Today, British-born Meeks still has that ethos and he is a fundamental part of the LibreOffice project. As one of the founders of The Document Foundation, Meeks watched with excitement as LibreOffice was downloaded – legally and for free – 7.5 million times between its first stable launch in January 2011 and October 2011. It has been installed millions more times since.

“I think the main thing is the freedom, you know: the freedom to copy and redistribute and fiddle and play with it, and contribute that back,” he tells us. “But I would say that I’m a free software guy rather than an open source guy and that would be my philosophical base. The lack of cost is nice but it is, of course, great if people do pay for support and services around software to help improve it. It’s clear that someone has to pay my salary.”

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You can see just how well LibreOffice is doing and the number of people actively contributing to the project

LibreOffice is now on version 3.6.1, having launched in August to much acclaim and excitement. As each iteration comes into being, it delivers another compelling reason for consumers to ditch Microsoft Office. “I think we compete vigorously with Microsoft, so yes, I think Microsoft Office is something that we hope to beat, for sure.”

LibreOffice also provides satisfaction for Meeks that Microsoft Office never could. “The great thing is that on my machine there is nothing I can’t fix,” he says, before referring to programmer Richard Stallman – who, in 1980, became frustrated that he was refused access to the source code for a newly installed printer at MIT’s AI Lab, which meant he couldn’t add an electronic message service for users. “Stallman decided then that people should be able to modify the software they use,” says Meeks. “I understand that. Bad software frustrates me, but it’s even more frustrating when you can see that there’s only something silly wrong but you can’t fix it yourself.”

LibreOffice is worked on by scores of volunteers as well as the core development team. The development process is very different to that of, the project from which The Document Foundation split. “Previously it was a proprietary of products for Star Office which was bought by Sun,” says Meeks. “I guess the project was announced fully formed with a large full-time employed development team behind it. The consultancy that we had got for doing that open sourcing was immoderately poor and the training the developers had was really bad, which poisoned a lot of people, I think. They were over-promised. And then Oracle… it was a great shame, because with better management and better structuring of the project, it could have been a really good success story.”

LibreOffice today

Our attention turns to the current product, however, and Meeks laughs when talking about the new features of LibreOffice. “There’s a word count in the status bar – I think journalists like that a lot,” he states, jovially. This new feature was created by a volunteer called Muhammad Haggag who, Meeks explains, just jumped in and added it. “We had a chap called Matt Pratt, a volunteer who just turned up. For version 3.5 he produced this word count dialog that could be opened and interactively update, but people decided they wanted it in the status bar. Muhammad did a great job.”

So too did the people who produced the PDF Export with Watermark option, the ten new Impress master pages, the support for important Office SmartArt, the contextual spacing, the font size key-presses, the enhanced table auto-formats, the merge cells option on the right-click menu, and the improved CSV file import and all of those other many, many new features which are now being loved and used by LibreOffice converts.

In Calc, support for colour scales and data bars has been added, thanks to programmer Markus Mohrhard, a student whose work required some serious brainpower. The task meant dealing with different file filters and extending the ODF file format.

“The cell bar chart stuff is my favourite”, says Meeks. “The colour scales and data bars inside cells are pretty sweet if you have lots of data and you want to quickly see how the numbers are distributed and who’s doing well and who’s doing badly. So if you and your class have scores, for example in lots of different tests, you know you can enter them all and it will stretch again and just format the cells. You can see where all the red is showing up or where all the green is and who the performers are and where abnormalities such as some negative numbers or whatever show up, so that’s really cool.”

The Document Foundation has also worked on improving LibreOffice’s look. It has quite a large design team which draws on artistic talent to update the app icons and ensure the interface looks appealing. “We’ve changed the bevel and the zoom thing’s prettier,” states Meeks. “The rulers are nicer to look at and a lot of the legacy 3D look has been removed to make it crisper and cleaner. Our design team also drew all these new master pages. There is now a whole load of templates coming on. It’s really encouraging to see the design guys getting stuck in to improve things; that’s good.”

Another volunteer, Fridrich Strba, implemented the import filter for CorelDRAW documents. It had been reverse-engineered by another volunteer and it allows for the importing of smaller versions of CorelDRAW files than the official CorelDRAW. “I think they encourage people to upgrade by only allowing imports of files from the last few versions, version 4 or something,” says Meeks. “But we seem to do pretty nicely there. That’s again encouraging because people can move away from proprietary undocumented formats to a clean PDF, Excel and zip world. We’re future-proofing their documents for them really, which is cool.”

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The app styling is coming on in leaps and bounds, with the interface fitting the Android look

In a similar vein, the development team has a video import function and compatibility for Microsoft Publisher and Microsoft Works. “There’s just a sort of growing stack of obscure file formats that we can import and rescue your data from, which is nice and useful,” Meeks comments.

The army of volunteers is crucial for LibreOffice’s future development. Around a quarter of those involved are volunteers but, Meeks says, if you look at individuals contributing actively each month it can be a lot higher. On top of that are translators and people who help with the website, marketing, system administration and so much more. “In terms of the proportion of people that are paid, it’s small compared to the overall number and it is encouraging to see so many people getting involved.”

LibreOffice in the future

It is clear, then, that work will continue for some time and there are many exciting developments for LibreOffice. Although, for example, Meeks feels Writer is in a good state, he believes it has interoperability problems and is missing features in the core. He says a lot of things work pretty well but there are a lot of bugs too. “When commenting text, at the moment, LibreOffice only allows you to comment at a given place so you can’t select a lot of text and say ‘this chunk of text is all wrong’. You can only put a comment in one position, which is kind of lame, so that’s being fixed.”

At this point, Meeks is on a roll. “What else?” he asks himself, pausing for barely a second and continuing. “Font embedding, so that we can put fonts inside documents so people can be more assured of the fidelity of the result at the other end. And again lots of Microsoft, even Excel, interoperability fixing goes on. And it’s trying just to get the very best round-tripping we can to the world of proprietary Office suites. So yeah, I mean, the sort of things like the new header/ footer stuff are nice, I guess. So you can now put a document page and get a widget that pops up so you can easily insert a header and footer, which previously people said was very hard to do. And you can do that interactively: you can get your page numbers there with three clicks or whatever. And that’s rather better than people not being able to work out how to get a page number in, which is good. Yeah, little interactive fixes like that. But I think the main emphasis…would be the platforms and interoperability. They really are key things for us.” It is clear he loves what he does.

A version for Android is a priority too, using much of the desktop version’s underlying code. The user interface, however, will be tweaked so that it feels like an Android app – unlike the current prototype which uses the LibreOffice desktop interface.

And while the Android app will, at first, only be a document viewer – you’re not going to get a full editor as yet – Meeks says the mobile operating system is one which it wants to fully integrate with. “These new relevant mobile devices, seem to be coming along at a hot rate of knots and we’re seeing Android having something like 60 per cent of the mobile market now. When you look at Microsoft at 2.7 per cent, I think obviously leveraging the respected and admired Windows brand from the PC into the phone doesn’t seem to be working, does it?” Meeks starts to laugh. “It’s a shame,” he says unconvincingly.

Meeks hopes an Android LibreOffice app will be ready in 2013, although there is every likelihood that it won’t. He said the team had envisaged that timeline, but things can change. They do, at least, have the Android version cross-compiling. “At least we have the whole thing cross-compiling, you know, building into APK, installing on your phone and viewing simple documents. There’s some limitations to Android that make our life difficult, like the 50MB download limit for the base stuff.”

And then he starts to talk about iOS. Both the iPhone and iPad figure in his thoughts, and iOS versions will be worked on. “I guess eventually we’re hoping to port to the iPhone, although there’s some more technical challenges to that,” he admits. “It’s quite an exciting platform from a native code perspective and while, unfortunately, the iPad is a much larger part of the tablet market, we think tablets are a thing that we can address quite nicely.”

He reveals that they have LibreOffice running on iOS test units, but that it has proved a mammoth task. “The problem with iOS is that you’ve got to link everything into one big lump,” he explains. “There’s a single static link library requirement, which is not a huge problem for us because we really need to reduce the number of libraries we have anyway, but we’ve been doing a lot of infrastructural work to make it possible. We’ve been sort of undoing the hugely complicated component system that we have which likes to load lots of little scattered bits of code and the great thing about that is, although we’re doing it for iOS and Android, that also helps start-up time on normal desktop systems by reducing sync time on a disk. So that’s cool.”

The problems on iOS are similar in some ways to that of Android. There’s a fixed limit to the number of shared libraries that can be loaded, which is something that is not on Linux generally. “We’re having to clump those libraries together to get it so that you can load the document without blowing the shared library limit. We need help. The more people we get involved, the quicker it’ll go and if we got another two volunteers on the code I think we could probably fix something very quickly, actually.”

He claims the full LibreOffice could be run on Android but that there would be many limitations, not least the user interface being
020-026_LUD_118 PK.indd 25 inadequate. Editability is something that will be coming, but the issues are adding a wealth of file format interoperability and fidelity to another platform while it’s growing and then trying to generate interest and contributors. Meeks is, however, interested in ensuring both the mobile and desktop apps work together in time.

“The idea we have is that you have a little Android applet paired with your laptop or whatever you’re projecting with so you can see your current slides and your speaker notes and use it as a remote control, which is quite neat,” he says. “Hopefully we can even store documents. I think there’s a lot we could use there in terms of cool things like storing your documents on your mobile phone, so you trot up and you just pair and start presenting your slides. In that case, all the rendering is done by the PC itself and you’re just showing the images of the slides. Then there’s ideas about laser pointers driven by accelerometers that aren’t really laser pointers but they’re kind of dots drawn on the screen… Lots of fun things happening there.”

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Meeks wants to see iOS and Android phones work as remote controls for presentations

One of the prototypes in 3.6 was SharePoint integration. SharePoint was launched 2001 and it was originally associated with intranet content and document management. It can now be used for social networks, websites, enterprise search and more. “Lots of poorer people in Microsoft shops have, you know, bet their company on SharePoint and they’re now sort of stuck,” says Meeks. “It locks out of free software and that’s a shame, so we have a CMIF protocol implementation that is being tweaked to attract you to SharePoint and you’re able to check out and check in your documents and so on, which is a frequently requested customer feature.”

Collaboration is the future

While better integration with Android figures highly in the thoughts of The Document Foundation, so too does collaboration. The team is looking at live interactive co-editing, which it wants to be able to achieve without a server in the middle. “We’d like to be able to do it over the messaging network so that we wouldn’t need to set up some complicated machine in the middle.”

Beyond that, the buzz surrounds becoming better. Calc’s core performance improvements help people using large spreadsheets. It throws up scalability problems compared with Excel, which is multi-threaded, but LibreOffice is looking for better data structure. “Pretty much wherever you look, there are people struggling with problems, improving the code and fixing bugs, learning features and it’s very exciting.”

The future, however, does sound encouraging. In five years’ time, Meeks would like LibreOffice to be ubiquitous, working on trading systems, through mobile devices and PCs, built into projectors… “I think it’s a reasonably achievable vision,” he maintains. “We continue to grow our development community and there is lots of growing interest in the codebase and reusing it in lots of different ways. Lots of people are using it for cloud applications, for document conversion, for viewing, for all sorts of enterprise applications that people tend not to see.”

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You can see the feature set that the tablets would use and how they relate to what is on your desktop

It is clear he will be sticking with the project. “It’s a wonderful codebase,” he enthuses. “And the better we can make it, the more people will become interested in it. There’s a sort of a big scaling opportunity there, but if we can get it good enough and quick enough, we can really grow our market and yeah, just make the office suite market something that looks like the browser market. I think that would be my ideal outcome, where free software is really dominant.”