Jack Wallen joins The Document Foundation’s cry for enterprise companies to do the right thing.

Image: Jack Wallen

In a move that is equal parts surprising and not, The Document Foundation (TDF) has called out enterprise businesses for using an office suite clearly designated as a community version. This move is surprising in that most open source desktop projects fail to successfully target large businesses to gain further ground in an incredibly steep uphill battle for market share. The move isn’t surprising simply because every project needs to, at some point, turn a profit. 

That’s clearly what this move is geared toward. Understandably so. Without turning a profit, the project could easily be in danger of collapsing. This is, of course, the Achilles’ of open source–profit. Since most open source projects can be had for free, there’s little reason why a community of users would pony up the funds for a piece of software. This is a pattern we’ve seen pop up time and again. 

SEE: Linux service control commands (TechRepublic Premium)

An open source project garners a level of success. This newfound growth leads the project owners to realize, in order to keep growing they need funds. To that end, they start charging for the software. Users balk at the idea of paying, so they seek yet another free alternative. This always works out, because there are always alternatives.

That’s the case with consumers. However, we’re talking about enterprise users–companies with possibly thousands or hundreds of thousands of end users that require software to get their jobs done. The Document Foundation knows this and they’d much rather enterprise-class companies not opt for software that is supported by volunteers. Instead, TDF is now asking businesses to make use of the options better capable of supporting the needs of large companies.

TDF has a very valid point. To that they said: “This has had a twofold negative consequence for the project: A poor use of volunteers’ time, as they have to spend their time to solve problems for business that provide nothing in return to the community, and a net loss for ecosystem companies.”

That “nothing” is significant. Not only are these companies not spending even a minor percentage of their software budget for LibreOffice, they aren’t contributing code or resources. TDF should tell enterprise businesses to get off their metaphorical lawn and go play in a field better suited for the needs of their game.

A better option

The good news is that enterprise businesses have options. The most popular option is to turn to a company called Collabora. Collabora offers solutions for: 

  • An on-premise, online version of LibreOffice; 
  • third-party-hosted cloud options; and 
  • a standard client-based office suite. 

All options are based on LibreOffice, are fully supported by Collabora and do a fine job of presenting a viable office suite to users. 

Here’s the sticky bit: Enterprise customers have to be willing to pay for these versions–even when there’s a free version available for use. That’s a hard sell, but for any company that requires actual support (beyond Google, forums, and mailing lists), the piper must be paid.

Testing the client-based version of Collabora Office is actually quite easy, even on Linux. For example, log in to a Debian-based desktop, open a terminal window, and issue the following commands:

sudo apt-key adv --keyserver keyserver.ubuntu.com --recv-keys 0135B53B
sudo echo 'deb https://www.collaboraoffice.com/downloads/Collabora-Office-6.4-Snapshot/Linux/apt ./' >> /etc/apt/sources.list
sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install collaboraoffice -y

When the installation completes, you can start up Collabora office (which is an unstable snapshot) and kick the tires. You’ll find that Collabora Office is identical to LibreOffice. The difference is simple: A support contract and longer-term bug fixes, both of which are crucial to most enterprise businesses.

Is that enough to sway big companies away from using the free version of LibreOffice? In a time when money is tight for nearly everyone, that could wind up being a hard “no.”

What TDF needs to do

What should LibreOffice do to lead enterprise customers to Collabora? Unfortunately, the honor system won’t work. TDF can get on their knees and beg and it might not make a difference. Enterprise-class businesses care about one thing–the bottom line. Even though it’s crystal clear to some that the more people purchase support from Collabora, the better capable they are of improving LibreOffice. Even with this understanding, businesses aren’t always able to see that far into the future. They want to know what you can do for them now, not tomorrow (with the exception of those businesses who are interested in longer support terms). 

To that end, I think Collabora needs to up their office suite game a bit. They most certainly do need to continue contributing to LibreOffice; without them, LibreOffice wouldn’t be evolving nearly as fast, but they need to offer enterprise-class features that aren’t available in LibreOffice (beyond support and bug fixes. 

Back in July 2020, I wrote a piece titled: LibreOffice 7: Why a paid enterprise edition could be a positive change. In that piece, I stated there were three things enterprises required for an office suite:

  • Interoperability

  • Future proof

  • Standards compliance

LibreOffice does these things, and they do them well, but they could always be better. The fact is, TDF faces down two seemingly immovable juggernauts: MS Office and Google Workspace. For TDF to succeed in the corporate landscape, they’re going to have to make a better MS Office or Google Docs. Truth be told, the Collabora online version is actually very good. One only needs to deploy Nextcloud Hub to experience just how refined that tool has become. I can say that, because I remember working with the early version of Collabora online and it was terrible. Now, the tool can stand toe to toe with the competition. 

Obscurity is not good marketing

Even with the online version of the Collabora office suite being as good as it is, there’s one seriously major hurdle to overcome:

No one knows about it. This is the same issue that LibreOffice has faced for years. Obscurity is not a good marketing strategy. You’d be shocked at how many people I’ve told about LibreOffice, only to find out they’ve never heard of it. The conversation always goes down like this:

User: Argh! My license for MS Office has expired and I can’t afford to buy a new one. Anyone have any suggestions?

Me: LibreOffice.

User: What’s that.

Me: Sigh.

That’s become a predictable dialogue for the past decade and it’s showing no signs of changing.

What does that mean? Simple: If The Document Foundation wants enterprise-class businesses to make the switch to an option that offers support for large businesses (and, in return, contribute to the community version), they’re going to have to do a much better job at marketing their product.

This is the same unfortunate rock Linux has been under for years–they simply do not know how, or don’t have the resources, to market a product that is either the equal or the superior to what everyone is currently using.

It’s a shame, but it’s reality.

To The Document Foundation I would say this: You have a product worth marketing, so market it. Make sure medium to large businesses know that Collabora exists and that it’s the better option for them. They’ll spend the money (if they have it) for software that will help their employees get their job done. Collabora can do just that. 

And for any COO, CTO, or CFO, out there looking to pull a fast one over on The Document Foundation, don’t. Good software happens because it gets support. Good business software functions properly because it has support. Don’t sell the makers of LibreOffice or your employees short. They both deserve better.

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