A first look at Collabora/LibreOffice online (and a little bit of frustration)

Recently, I read a blog article by Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols about an initiative from Collabora, an “Open Source consulting” firm, OwnCloud, an Open Source Cloud solution and the well-known LibreOffice office suite (actually a fork of OpenOffice.org, which itself is a fork of StarOffice), to release an online version of LibreOffice. Finally!

Obviously, I was intrigued…

Not only because when I founded Ulteo in 2006, the initial promise was to make the user’s “Digital Life” available in the cloud (including both application and data).
Not only because the first glory fact of Ulteo by the end of 2007 has been to release OpenOffice.org online using a mix of presentation software technologies and web technologies (ending up registering 80,000 users in a few weeks).
Not only because as far as I know this new initiative is the first real port of LibreOffice to web technologies.
But also because recently, the surrounding business environment totally made me switch from OpenOffice/LibreOffice installed software to online service for Wordprocessing, Speadsheets and Presentation software. Yes you get it: Google Docs and Office365.

The two reasons that made me switch are:
1- the collaborative aspects of these online tools: writing and maintaining a document is more and more a “multi-people” activity. Therefore, being able to share and edit the same document in realtime, either being in the same room or from mutliple places, is a huge confort and a big productivity booster.
2- the online storage of documents that makes them available any time, any place.

BUT, the same way I felt jailed by Microsoft in the 90s, ending up using Linux (and a little more than just using, actually) at the time, I now feel jailed by Google and Microsoft when using Google Docs or Office 365.

Freedom has no price!

Therefore, we now need online and collaborative software that do not rely on proprietary software and business models.

And finally, my curiosity has been strong enough to give a look at this Collabora/OwnCloud/LibreOffice initiative. So let’s have a first look.

1- Installation:

As an online is not available for using and testing (probably for scalability matters and therefore cost reasons), you have to download a virtual machine image that embeds all the server software! And in some way, while it can sound a little bit frustrating, that is a great way to demonstrate that everyone will be able to install their own office server at home.

Using instructions at Collaboraoffice.com, it was a matter of minutes to download their VM image, download and setup VirtualBox for the purpose, and start the server.

Then, you just have to point a web-browser to the local URL that corresponds to the server. And you can log into your local online suite:

Then you can access your file repository (this looks a lot like OneDrive or Google Drive):

Then you can try to edit a document online, and test download options:

And I must say that editing the document is pretty much straightforward and looking good:

Spreadsheet and presentation work well tool:

2- But here comes some frustration…

So far, I was pretty impressed by what I have been able to test. Maybe the current implementation doesn’t offer as many options as you can find in Word-online, but there are probably roughly as many as in Google Docs, which is more than enough in most real-life cases.

And not having a central access point for this service is probably not a showstopper: with the decrease of hosting costs and the rise of low-cost fast internet accesses, I guess that many people can host such a service by themselves. And with some little redundancy and peer-to-peer connections (think Diaspora*), that could ultimately make a great, decentralized document hosting and editing infrastructure that could hard-compete with Google Docs and Office 365.

But where I think they miss the point at the moment, (or maybe I missed something, this is possible), is that it does not include realtime collaboration features!

OK, I know that it’s probably the hardest part to implement, because you have to mix all realtime edits together, deal with concurrent user revisions, to ultimately render a consistent document that is constantly up-to-date with user’s modifications. But this is possible to implement… since Microsoft and Google have done it.

So it would be very interesting to get some feedback from the engineering team about their feature roadmap. It’s probably the key point that can make Collabora/OwnCloud/LibreOffice a game changer, and make some people come back from Google & Microsoft online services.

Anyways, kudos to the development team for this exceptionnal achievement that is full of promises!

–Gaël Duval – Interested in open source, mobile operating systems, data privacy? Follow me on Twitter

PS there is an interesting other online collaboration software that include drive and document editing features (realtime collaboration?), that is OpenExchange, though it’s not fully Open Source.

PPS You should also consider the great OnlyOffice solution, with realtime collaboration features. I covered its installation and usage in a new article.

3 Replies to “A first look at Collabora/LibreOffice online (and a little bit of frustration)”

  1. The developers know, of course, that collaborative editing is missing. It is on the roadmap for 2016. They state “rich editing” and “collaborative editing” as main goals.

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