Upcoming 2.0.4 version of the open-source office suite is designed to make plug-in extensions easier to write and manage.
Firefox users can download and install extensions that add new features, and something of a cottage industry developing these has grown up around the open-source Web browser. OpenOffice is hoping for a similar blossoming of a development ecosystem, spurred by an update that people will be able to try in coming days.
"OpenOffice.org is a huge amount of code. It'll be much easier now for somebody who wants to do core development to get working on it," Louis Suarez-Potts, a leader of the project, said in an interview Friday. "All they have to do is create the script that hooks it into OpenOffice.org."
OpenOffice has made some small inroads against the dominant rival, Microsoft Office, in part because some governments have warmed toward the OpenDocument file format it employs. But if OpenOffice extensions took off, it could help the open-source suite moderately, said RedMonk analyst Stephen O'Grady.
"It would not be as significant as it's been to Firefox, simply because it's far easier to switch browsers than office suites. But it could make OpenOffice.org a more interesting and compelling platform," O'Grady said.
OpenOffice's roots lie in Sun Microsystems' $73.5 million 1999 acquisition of Star Division, a German company that built an office suite called StarOffice. Sun kept the StarOffice lineup, but in 2000, it also released the products as the open-source OpenOffice.org project.
The current OpenOffice software can accept some extensions, but the upcoming 2.0.4 version will have new extension format, OXT. That format can accommodate extensions written in a variety of programming languages, Charles Schultz, who leads the effort to adapt OpenOffice to numerous local languages, said in his blog. It also will become easier to choose, manage and configure extensions, he added.
Extensions could provide new capabilities without further increasing the size of the base product, Suarez-Potts said. For example, somebody might want an extension that would link OpenOffice data to accounting software.
A first release candidate of version 2.0.4 is due "very shortly," Suarez-Potts said.
Open-source extensions will be housed at a central site, extensions.openoffice.org, Suarez-Potts said. People will be able to download the software there.
However, because OpenOffice is governed by the Lesser General Public License (LGPL), it's permissible to link proprietary extensions as well, he added.
Firefox has hundreds of extensions--everything from bookmark synchronization tools and Dilbert cartoons in Czech, to blog editors and PayPal payment systems.
"Firefox extensions are popular among the developer and power-user crowd, but they haven't trickled down to the average consumer at this point. I would assume the same pattern would be applicable to OpenOffice," 451 Group analyst Raven Zachary said.
But it's a different matter for programmers, Zachary added. "OXT could be huge for developers who don't want to wait around for specific functionality to be added to the core OpenOffice codebase," he said. "This is especially true when it comes to data import and export features."
The support for extensions is just one way OpenOffice leaders are trying to make life easier for developers. They also are planning to make the software more modular by breaking it into smaller components.
"The main benefit would be for developers, who would be able to work more freely and quickly on various elements," Suarez-Potts said. "We want to make it so people don't have to struggle, as they did in the past, understanding the code."
A more modular approach will help customers, too, Suarez-Potts added. OpenOffice has several components--Writer for word processing, Calc for spreadsheet calculations, and Impress for presentations, for example. However, with today's design, "in order to run one component, you have to load 85 percent of the application," Suarez-Potts said. "If you're using a computer with relatively small memory, then having it radically modularized helps. You only load one element of application."