open office still pulling the wrong page from the firefox playbook

[Phew. Finished torts reading for the night, so one last quick thought.]

Almost two years ago to the day, I wrote:

In my humble opinion, OOo should to take a page from the mozilla folks- take a release cycle (or more) and focus exclusively on improving performance and usability. No new features. Even remove features if necessary. This is what firefox has done over mozilla, and that’s done wonders for firefox, both in user uptake and hacker uptake. They’ve gone from dozens of paid hackers to something like ten, and despite that, because of the new focus, still increased market share and hacker interest. If open office focused on those problems for a year, licked the startup time problem, and made (say) preferences less grotesque, I think they’d see a radical improvement in uptake and involvement. Frankly, people are excited about switching from IE to firefox, as far as I can see- it offers something fairly light, quick, and new features virtually every user will use and like. No one except people who loathe Microsoft are excited to switch to open office, and they won’t be until the speed and usability issues with open office are addressed. Sadly, I see no evidence that OOo is focused on these problems- if OOo wants to be competitive and relevant, if it wants to excite people, those must be job #1 for the OOo team.

Basically every word in there is still true. Startup time is still terrible; the preferences panel is still brutal; focus is still on feature parity. They are still not focusing on what made firefox such a quantum leap over mozilla, as I discussed two years ago.

This is not to say that OOo has ignored ffox. The have apparently looked at the firefox example and decided that what they need is… plugins. Now, plugins are pretty good for users- they allow people to customize and add features without increasing substantial complexity or QA burden for core developers, or difficulty in configuration for non-power users. They are also a useful feature for a piece of software from a competitive viewpoint, in that they create a powerful network effect. (The only times I ever think twice about using firefox these days is when someone points me at a greasemonkey plugin.) So plugins aren’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination.

But plugins do not solve core problems in your product- not when those problems are lack of stability, lack of performance, lack of ease of use, lack of Killer Feature that your competition lacks. That OOo is spending time adding a plugin infrastructure- which addresses none of those problems (except hypothetically the killer feature problem, someday, if you get lucky)- shows that again they still aren’t getting it. They still have not learned the right lessons from firefox.
So c’mon, guys… where is my gnomeoffice powerpoint replacement? :)

37 thoughts on “open office still pulling the wrong page from the firefox playbook”

  1. Beyond Firefox: Can Take a Page from Debian? Last week we took a look at the issue of what could learn from the success of Firefox, a post responding to Luis’ assertion that the office suite had absorbed the wrong lessons from the Seamonkey to Firefox transition. Luis’ entry also elicited an interesting response from the OO.o community itself, which to its credit has recently begun blogging – a necessary first step

  2. Luis Villa revisited criticisms of after two years, and recently posted What is Still Doing Wrong. His thesis is that Firefox, rising from the ashes of Mozilla (okay, maybe not phrased that strongly, but I like the image), represents a better strategy for making usable and easily adoptable software.

  3. Someone pointed me to the blog of Luis Villa. He reports some observations and opinions about and compares the way how we apparently treated the observed problems with what the Mozilla project did to solve them. I think that his view is somewhat

  4. Luis Villa revisited criticisms of after two years, and recently posted What is Still Doing Wrong. His thesis is that Firefox, rising from the ashes of Mozilla (okay, maybe not phrased that strongly, but I like the image), represents a better strategy for making usable and easily adoptable software.

  5. As far as I can tell, most of the OO hackers are full time employees (many of the Firefox hackers are too, but let’s ignore that for the sake of my point). Presumably the companies that employ them (Sun mostly, and Novell) have their own priorities, based on what their current target customers need.

    That seems to be large corporate deployments, specifically the coporate buyers who have been happy with MS Office’s sometimes awful performance and disastrous usability, happily ignoring the screams of their users. All they care about is the feature parity, for less money.

    It will need someone else to do it right.

  6. I for one am looking forward to the coming quality bibliographic support. If they are able to pull it off before I finish my dissertation I will be switching over despite the slowness, etc…

    Sometimes a new feature is a killer ;) …

    Just a thought …

  7. Interesting. Praising Firefox for its “performance”. I’m just going to have this one sink in and then laugh. And yes, it is my browser of choice. But seriously, in which parrelel reality are you located?

  8. Sigh yeah, the always returning request for a gnome office presentation program.
    Part of the problem might be that the situation is now pretty different from when Gnumeric and AbiWord were started. There is ooimpress already and implementing a feature reduced clone doesn’t make much sense.
    One would need to find a very specific niche and have a clear vision not only what is wrong with current presentation apps but also how to do it significantly better. Also it looks like most of the productivity app hackers are spoken for already (abi, gnumeric, inkscape, gimp …). Attempts like criawips had problems getting past the critical mass where they would attract fresh brains.
    Maybe in a few years, when inkscape has split the canvas part into a libray and implemented animations it will be easier to toy around.

  9. I still hope novell will “fork” OOo some time… as in, taking the underlying libraries and completly rewriting the gui, perhaps using gtk-sharp.

  10. Maybe it’s time to shift the focus concerning a Powerpoint replacement. What I really would like to see is Keynote-like presentation program for Gnome or GNU/Linux in general. The nice effects are all possible using Cairo. It could come with a dozen of beautiful templates, which layout prevent you from putting a lot of bullet points on your slides. It could have nice drawing features, including Keynote’s guidelines. But most of all, it would save to an open format (ODT).

  11. The plugin system will allow them to remove features from the core distribution, which should help their UI team do something about the interface.

    At least that’s my hope. ;)

  12. Murray: if Sun were sane, they’d realize that the best thing they can do for their paying customers is get OOo to have 5-10% market share, like FFox does. That’s way more important than any particular feature they can add.

    Thoughts: it’s a killer feature for you, and for a small percentage of the market (hell, including myself.) But what OOo needs is a killer feature for a large percentage (10-15%) of the market. They’re not going to catch up to Word 1% of the market at at time- MS is adding those kinds of features all the time. You have to have the courage/vision to leap ahead.

    Meneer: clearly it has been a while since you used the old Seamonkey suite.

    Данило: I use it, but because it doesn’t support XUL, I miss things like the preferences panels that are often bundled with advanced greasemonkey scripts these days.

    Jo: You have two important points. (1) Of course I mean keynote, and not powerpoint ;) Long-time readers of my blog, including the gnome-office guys, will know what I meant there. Could have said ‘reinvent/rethink’, not just ‘replace’. (2) ODF. Very, very important to note that ODF is huge, and OOo got that right, at least. The GNOME Office folks should really follow the lead of KOffice here and make ODF their default file format, so that it is easy for users to switch away from something slow and bloated and up to something lighter and easier to use, without any worries about their data.

  13. […] Luis has some suggestions for the team, the same ones he made two years ago. Users don’t necessarily care about feature parity, they care about performance and ease of use. I’ll use Gnumeric over OOo Calc any day, but presentations are really just medieval. PowerPoint isn’t great (especially when compared to Keynote’s two-display aware presentation mode), but Impress makes baby Jesus cry. […]

  14. About 18 months ago I switched jobs from a programming/sysadmin environment where I spent all day in shell/emacs/web browser to an academic environment where Word documents are the main means of information exchange (sadly).

    While I agree with the points made here (especially about the ‘Options’ window, which is awful), by far the most important aspect of OpenOffice, for people who use it every day, is the fact that it reads and writes Word documents really, really well. It’s that, more than anything else, that allows me to carry on using Linux in a Windows work environment. This is quite an achievement (and things improved a lot in that area between 1.0 and 2.0). Abiword may have a cleaner interface, but it is nowhere near as good at Word document exchange.

    So let’s not lose sight of the good aspects of Openoffice.

    The reason why bibliographic support would be great is that, while it might seem to be a marginal area (although higher education is actually a rather large target market for FOSS in general), it is an area where Word can easily be beaten. The bibliographic and citation support offered by a combination of Word and Endnote is, arguably, behind where LaTeX/Bibtex were 10 years ago. Of course I’m biased, because I word in academia but there you go.

    (Incidentally, my current personal solution to submitting academic papers to journals in Word format is to write them in LaTeX/bibtex and convert them to openoffice format using tex4ht. It works really well.)

  15. As co-project lead for the OOo biblilgraphic project, I sympathize with the frustation. I do, however, have the sense that OOo is getting back on track. If you watch/listen to Michael Bemmer’s talk at OOoCon in Lyon, he mentioned that improving the infrastructure (fixing bugs, refactoring, etc.) is an important goal for them.

    And WRT to the bibliographic project, I’m hoping that the OpenDocument metadata work I’m involved in will put in place the file-level infrasstucture to finally solve this problem, and open up a lot of other opportunities (including for extensions). You can see the transcript of conversation last week about all this with Sun and OOo developers.

  16. Ben: compatibility isn’t sufficient to actually grow, because Office is pretty compatible with Office too, it turns out. I could not convince my old office to switch to OOo (they were all firefox and gaim users, mind you) because none of them could see what the benefit was. They got free-er, sure, but at the cost of usability, performance, and compatibility. (Even if the compatibility is 99%, that’s still a step down from 100%.)

    [I might add that the only complicated doc file I’ve gotten so far at law school was better read by Abi than by OOo, though I agree that in general for complex files OOo handles things decently well.]

    Bruce: I’m glad you see some progress, but honestly, I’m going to keep screaming until I see the OOo leadership shut the hell up about anything that isn’t quality, performance, and usability. My original post was inspired by OOo getting very excited that they had a markeitng strategy. This year’s post was inspired by OOo getting very excited about plugins. Those things are distractions, frankly; distractions OOo shouldn’t afford until they’ve fixed the core problems that stop them from getting any traction. To put it another way- very expensive, very time-consuming, lipstick on a pig.

  17. one point that may be missed about plugins is that, in part, it is firefox’s extension architecture that allows the interface to remain clean. People don’t need to shoehorn their favourite feature into firefox because they can write an extension.

    If anything word processors suffer from feature-itis even more than other software. Most word processors are like a swiss army knife for document production incorporating bits of DTP, bits of web production etc. Possibly a plugin achitecture for openoffice would allow them to streamline their core interface?

  18. heya you seem to generate a fair rate of comments :)
    1) firefox sucks:
    * no security patches
    (don’t know of any other free software, who doesn’t provide security patches for it’s release, or that mixes semiimportant patches with security patches)
    * heavy weight
    * big mem leaks
    see how much the one laptop / child project has troubles with this leaky app
    * non free trademark enforcement
    unless you take _only_ the junk you are not allowed to name the browser firefox
    nor to use the firefox graphics icon
    * css2 compliance – apple did the acid test2 long ago

    2) openoffice conf:
    (take a look at what the focus is there is a very good talk from a sun germany open office dev leader about the next steps)
    and quicker preloading is one of them – they pay attention to usability.

  19. Heh. So I think everyone who is talking about how badly firefox sucks is completely missing the point: firefox ‘sucks’, according to you guys, and yet it has 10-15% market share. OOo has terrible market share- if it is 1%, I’d be shocked, because as I’ve said, even the most Freedom-sympathetic windows users won’t use it.

    So, lets grant that firefox sucks (I’m certainly not their biggest fan- the trademark issue along makes me regret I ever contributed time and effort to them), and lets grant that OOo does not suck. What is the explanation for the market share difference then?

    For bonus points, if OOo has been on the same track for years, and has gained no appreciable market share, justify why they should continue on the same track and not radically and publicly admit that the last several years of their development have been a waste of time. :) [Later: faster loading and usability should not be a focus, they should be the focus. You’ll note the press releases are about plugins, not speed and usability- which tells you where the real priorities are.]

  20. I might add that this quote makes my point better than I ever could:

    “The only objective of the 3.0 will be to make it much more modular and running on tops of
    frameworks such as Eclipse, Netbeans or Mozilla’s XUL.”

    Now, assuming that is accurate, what part of that is ‘adding killer features that real people really want’ or ‘fixing the horrible things that real people really hate’? Again, learn from Mozilla- going down the platform rathole (much less making a meta-platform that will run on XUL or Netbeans or Eclipse) is a mistake.

  21. So, lets grant that firefox sucks (I’m certainly not their biggest fan- the trademark issue along makes me regret I ever contributed time and effort to them)

    The trademark issue is no different from that faced by other projects which use and protect their trademarks. Consider for example Debian, which in addition to forbidding you to redistribute modified versions and call them Debian doesn’t make it easy to distribute a modified version not branded as Debian; this is a one-line config file change with Firefox.

    Why is this an issue for Firefox and not for Debian, then? What makes Firefox different from Debian? The differences are that Firefox is popular, but Debian is (comparatively) not; the number of entities wishing to redistribute Firefox is huge, but the number wishing to redistribute Debian (or any other Linux distribution under its original name, for that matter) is not. In the case of Debian, there are fewer redistributors who care about this (so less noise when it does occur) and fewer malicious violators (e.g., a firewall maker bundling Debian plus their known-buggy, insecure firewall as a “bullet-proof, totally-secure connection to the Internet”). In the case of Firefox, its name recognition is such that those who wish to promote their possibly-buggy products at the same time or change some core functionality in ways which can easily have unintended consequences can and do try this, and without trademark enforcement there’s nothing that can be done in the cases where modifications are executed poorly. (There have indeed been cases where trademark enforcement was able to prevent low-quality redistribution from happening.)

    Frankly, Luis, given the posts you tend to make (as syndicated on p.g.o) and their quality I wouldn’t have expected the trademark issue to be a concern of yours with Firefox; I expected you would have an understanding of how this is a problem partially forced upon them by the law and partially forced upon them by popularity. Feel free to clarify my misunderstanding, though. :-)

    P.S. — As a disclaimer, I should probably note that I’m involved to time-varying degrees with the Mozilla and Firefox projects, so I can’t claim objectivity. (I will, however, claim greater knowledge of the reasons behind the trademark problem and enforcement efforts.)

  22. I’ve written fairly extensively on trademark in an open source community, Jeff, and how I think strong trademark protection creates an imbalance between contributors which violates the spirit, if not the letter, of the social contract we work under. Unfortunately, my magnum opus on the subject is sort of crappy and desperately needs to be rewritten, but that should give you some idea too.

    Bottom line: the threats are mostly imaginary; the licensing is draconian (because of the nature of TM law); the legal imagination in the licensing (equivalent to that which created copyleft) is completely lacking; and the power it gives a centralized body is completely antithetical to the licensing regime we use elsewhere.

    [I hate it when people use the Debian example, because Debian hates their TM license too.]

    [You might also check out Chris Messina’s thinking on Community Marks, Jeff. While his argument is not complete, I think he hits a lot of the high points very well.]

  23. Yes Jeff is right the Debian TM for the logo is widely considered a bug and should be fixed soonest.
    The same is true to the project TM.

    Trademark does not stop malicious redistribution. Either your product is Free Software and you need to sit back a bit and watch what others do of it or you release binary freeware blobs that no one else can debug.
    Jeff Walden if you are inside of Mozilla it would be great to pass around the article on Iceweasel:
    Yes i agree with the conclusio. Mozilla seems to loose touch with it’s Open source grounds. It would be great if the Mozilla guys would hear the troubles Fedora, Ubuntu and Debian have to distribute it (Browser seem to be todays nr.1 security bug source).

    Luis i rethought your bottom line arg of market coverage. For Mozilla it is _much_ more easier to switch users. A Browser renders a freely available w3 Spec, whereas Openoffice needs to reverse Engenier a buggy and strange format.
    Compatibility matters a lot for the reason of switching, if the document you write renders very differently on your coworker or Boss’es Screen you will no longer use that. So it’s really not that easy to compare, but i agree your point on that the focus of openoffice would be better directed.
    bon weekend

  24. […] Open Office self sabotage. Luis Villa: “In my humble opinion, OOo should to take a page from the mozilla folks- take a release cycle (or more) and focus exclusively on improving performance and usability. No new features. Even remove features if necessary. This is what firefox has done over mozilla, and that’s done wonders for firefox, both in user uptake and hacker uptake.” I couldn’t agree more. […]

  25. I suspect the release of Office 12 will be somewhat pivotal in OO.o’s future… at that point they’re either going to have to rewrite a whole lot of stuff anyway to maintain to some sort of look-and-feel parity with M$, or they’ll realise it’s no longer worth the effort of trying to look like Office, and go and do their own thing instead.

  26. […] In other ‘me’ news, the guys at Deep Fried Bytes have posted a podcast I did with them a few weeks ago. We rambled all over the place, and had a fun enough time doing it that it ended up being two podcast episodes; second part not posted yet. Beware: I say nice things about Office 2007; if that disturbs you, might not want to listen. (I also dump all over OpenOffice, but that is mostly old news.) […]

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