"Sun dropping out of OpenOffice.org development wouldn't be an entirely negative thing"

Novell-developer Michael Meeks finds strong words for Sun's management of the free office suite in an interview - Pushes for own OOo flavor and talks about KDE/GNOME-unification

Although his official position at Novell nowadays describes him as "Desktop Architect" Michael Meeks main focus is on improving OpenOffice.org. A task which is not made easier by a severe lack of openness at Sun as he puts it. In an interview at the recent GNOME Users and Developers Conference (GUADEC) in Istanbul he talked with Andreas Proschofsky about future developments around the free office suite, the current need for Go-oo - an improved OOo flavor - and about breaking down barriers between KDE and GNOME.

The following interview is also available in a german translation.

derStandard.at: A lot of applications are moving to the web, also in the office space - like with Google Documents and other solutions. Is the need for a full office suite slowly fading away?

Michael Meeks: That's a very good question - and a very difficult to answer one. So I think there are lot's of different classes of users, lot's of different types of workloads. And typically the easy workloads are moving to the web and there are a lot of benefits that you can get from that. In particular collaboration is the killer feature that has made these fairly feature-free office-suites useful to people. But the problem is: As more and more simple stuff moves to the web, you are left with the increasingly non-simple stuff and you actually need quite some horsepower for some of that. Even a simple chart in your presentation can have a huge pivot-table behind it that is doing some serious data crunching.

Also OpenOffice.org isn't even finished right now and rewriting all of this in HTML and Javascript would be quite difficult, the web is not a beautiful, clean development environment. It's actually very difficult to produce something which looks like you want it to look like. And that's by design - it's not a fixed layout, which is good for the web but when you try to layout documents you need more precision.

derStandard.at: The user interface of OpenOffice.org is still quite similar to Office 2003. Microsoft has done some big changes there with Office 2007, is OpenOffice.org going to follow suit here?

Meeks: I think we substantially have to improve and rework our user interface and there is a plan for that. But the problem with the current UI really isn't ribbon or not ribbon in my view. The current one is using a very inflexible widget toolkit called VCL and that is really something out of the Mid-Nineties - it's a disaster. It hasn't been improved substantially since then. So we are doing a whole lot of work to improve the widget toolkit inside OpenOffice.org, to introduce layout and that's being funded by Novell and driven by us.

derStandard.at: Are you going to replace VCL or improve on it?

Meeks: Replacing VCL is difficult because it's used in both the documents itself but also in the user interface. So what we are trying to do is using a different toolkit for the chrome, we are looking into using GTK+ as a pluggable backend.

derStandard.at: Will this be specific to the Linux version?

Meeks: Yes. Currently VCL on Linux uses GTK+ to render the styles and also the top level window is a GTK+-window, so a lot of infrastructure is already in place. But in the first pass we are using VCL and introducing layout there and push this around the codebase.

The problem is - if you look at say Firefox, they changed the UI and it's excellent, but there is almost no UI there. And in OpenOffice.org we have such a large amount of User Interface so it's difficult to change. And that's historically been the problem why it hasn't been improved. So hopefully the way we designed Layout is that it makes changes very reasonable and have pretty low impact so that we can at least move to something better and make it look nicer pretty quickly. I think we should be seeing that starting to land in the codebase in the next six months.

derStandard.at: Isn't naming the next release OpenOffice.org 3.0 a marketing stunt, as there really seems to be nothing which differentiates it from being another 2.x-release?

Meeks: Yes it is. And I think we should not be ashamed of it.

We had a major achievement by moving to a regular release schedule so that it's predictable when it's coming out and this has delivered incredible increases in stability, the cycle between bug creation and bug fixing is so much shorter, so there is so much more feedback coming in. And we also don't push features in the last moment, cause there is another release in six months anyways.

So don't slam OpenOffice.org for not being totally new with 3.0, but it's a marketing occasion, it's also easier for people to say "this has been fixed with 2.0, that one with 3.0".

  • Michaels Meeks, OpenOffice.org hacker
    foto: guadec

    Michaels Meeks, OpenOffice.org hacker

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