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Programmers gave Oracle's OpenOffice a good code-scrubbing to build the LibreOffice 3.3 offshoot. Expect more visible changes with 3.4 later this year.

LibreOffice logo

Programmers have released the first version of LibreOffice for Windows and Mac, the product of a rebellion against Oracle's open-source office suite called

A group called the Document Foundation--unhappy with Oracle's control over OpenOffice after it was acquired along with Sun Microsystems--forked the software into the group's own version in September. LibreOffice 3.3 is the first stable release.

LibreOffice has won support from longtime open-source allies such as Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu. But it's got rivals aplenty: while the Document Foundation focuses on separating from its Oracle and Sun roots, the larger rival remains Microsoft Office and new challengers come in the form of cloud computing products such as Google Docs.

Now, the competition is on to see which variation will be most useful and popular.

LibreOffice accommodates various extensions. One shown here, bundled with LibreOffice, is for importing PDF files for editing.
LibreOffice accommodates various extensions. One shown here, bundled with LibreOffice, is for importing PDF files for editing. LibreOffice

As one might expect from a point release, the new features in LibreOffice 3.3 are modest in scope. Among them are the ability to import SVG graphics files, a console for those creating presentations, and a Microsoft Works import filter. And the software includes features set for the upcoming OpenOffice 3.3, such as a spreadsheet limit of a million rows and a print dialog box designed to be easier to use.

But it's when talks arises about changes under the covers in LibreOffice 3.3 that some of the Document Foundation's excitement about a fresh start becomes more apparent.

"Invisible differences are huge," said Italo Vignoli, a founding member of the Document Foundation. "The source code has been cleaned," he said, with comments tidied up and often translated from the original German into English and with unused remnants of old features stripped out.

"This activity, which has been possible thanks to the new contributors gathered by the project since the announcement in September (tens of them), is key to ensure a better foundation for future software developments," Vignoli said. "Differences will start to be more visible starting from LibreOffice 3.4 which will be available in mid-2011."

Twenty programmers moved their efforts to LibreOffice--about a third of them, Vignoli estimates. Since then, the "project has attracted around 100 developers," many tackling easy, minor changes to become familiar with the software. Now that development is under way, Vignoli expects the project to diverge increasingly from

LibreOffice has the traditional informal support network common to open-source projects, but Vignoli hopes for more.

LibreOffice Calc is a spreadsheet program.
LibreOffice Calc is a spreadsheet program. LibreOffice

"We perfectly know that for corporate adoption, it will be necessary to provide something more structured and organized," Vignoli said. "In some markets, this is already available through third parties--especially in Europe, and in some geographies such as Germany, France and Italy. But there is room for improvement, and immediately after the release of LibreOffice 3.3 we will start working at building a solid ecosystem."

And he expects some commercial activity in this area to help make LibreOffice more self-sustaining financially.

"We are going to build a program for third parties to make the process of adding value around LibreOffice (migrations, development, and training) easier and better structured. The Document Foundation is going to provide the services for the ecosystem," he said. Particulars have yet to be settled upon, but "we might charge for providing high-level training (train the trainers) and to provide a certification infrastructure for third parties willing to be recognized by the project."