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LibreOffice Online Takes Another Step Forward

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“The first 100% open source, enterprise-grade cloud Office Suite” is how Collabora Productivity describes the goal of its recently announced collaboration with Kolab Systems. In fact, the goal has a longer history than the description implies, although its promise of free-licensed groupware has the potential to fill one of the few remaining gaps in open office productivity.

Unless you have been following the topic, you might miss the fact that this new collaboration is the latest in a series of partnerships in which Collabora has been developing LibreOffice Online, aka CloudSuite, its own version of LibreOffice Online. Earlier partnerships include those with IceWarp and ownCloud.

These collaborations are a convenient approach to the major task of developing LibreOffice Online. Despite being one of the larger open source projects, the LibreOffice project itself hardly has the resources to head off in this new direction by itself — especially when considerable work remains to clean up the inherited code and interface for the desktop version of the office suite.

By contrast, LibreOffice for Android, which Collabora is also developing but without collaborations, is still officially in the prototype stage. Similarly, Calligra Suite, a community-developed alternative office suite, has yet to develop an online version (although it includes a touch screen version), while LibreOffice Online itself has planned and developed for five years.

Besides a willingness to work with open source, what IceWarp, ownCloud, and Kolab have in common is a concern with collaboration and cloud services. Collaboration, of course, is a natural area in which to use the cloud, and an area in which LibreOffice has changed not at all from the code that was released fifteen years ago. That is, the ability to add multiple author comments and to track, view, record, and accept or reject changes that are color-coded by author. The dialog for accepting or rejecting changes is particularly cramped, and the best description of the tools available is painfully basic, which leaves plenty of room for improvement and modernization.

Development Plans

In each of its partnerships, Collabora’s strategy is similar — to develop features that benefit its partner in order to produce code that can also eventually benefit the LibreOffice community.

For example, Aaron Seigo, senior technology and evangelist at Kolab describes Kolab’s current editor as:

A more traditional rich text-type editor. Kolab Systems developed a system called Manticore that e-released as a technical preview along with Kolab 16 which brings collaborative editing… in a lightweight fashion. We believe that, by having collaborative editing as a pervasive feature, with CloudSuite bringing that to office documents and Manticore doing similar for the light tasks around Kolab (such as notes), we can make collaboration a feature everyone takes for granted because it will always be within reach.

Among the tools that Seigo suggests will be added to Kolab to enhance Cloud Suite are “chat between users, sharing documents between people, tagging, [and] integration with the Kolab web app’s file manager, which provides easy access to to files store in public or private data clouds.”

“What we are doing,” Seigo says, is integrating [CloudSuite] with Kolab so that the two work seamlessly together.” For example, CloudSuite will open files stored in Kolab and also be able to manage Kolab user credentials.”

As Michael Meeks, a LibreOffice founder and Collabora general manager who has presented on the Kolab collaboration, points out, “the elegance of this [solution] is the re-use of a huge chunk of LibreOffice,” which frees developers to focus on new features and integration with Kolab. Although Meeks suggests that the toolbars will have fewer features than in desktop LibreOffice, “there are still a good set of key-bindings for power-users to apply styles and edit text.”

Essentially, Meek explains “we are providing a cut-down editing experience. This is part of our drive to focus first on stability and scalability — then to get full collaboration (currently we have only a shared editing mode, whereby multiple users can share a single editing mode.). After these are in place, we plan to expose much more of the rich editing functionality of LibreOffice.”

In fact, having so much existing code is probably the main reason that the first release from the collaboration is due in the second quarter of 2016.

The Alliance at Work

Last week, I wrote about the uneasy alliance between corporations and community in open source. The alliance, I suggested, worked best when each partner recognized the contribution of the other. Although we have to wait to see what is released, Collabora’s collaborative development gives every appearance of being a case in point.

Some of the features developed for Kolab may have no point in stand-alone versions of LibreOffice. However, many should. Users may have to wait a year or two, but, with any luck, as a result of this collaboration, LibreOffice should eventually get a much needed upgrade to a set of features that have been neglected for far too long.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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