Interview: Florian Effenberger

The Office Crusader

We approve of projects forking to do a better job – and one of the best examples is LibreOffice…

For our first magazine interview, we got some cheap flights and headed out to Kaufbeuren, an attractive Swabian city an hour’s train ride from Munich. This is where we met Florian Effenberger, Executive Director at The Document Foundation (he was chairman at the time of this interview), and Alexander Werner from the Foundation’s membership committee. This is the non-profit organisation at the heart of LibreOffice, the famous fork of now dominant in every Linux distribution. We were able to ask Florian about the split, about arguments over a new name and what wheat beer he’d recommend as a souvenir for our journey home.


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Linux Voice: The Document Foundation has a board of directors, which includes Michael Meeks. What’s your job as head of the board?

Florian Effenberger: I’m active in two parts, basically. One is lots of Foundation management handling, like trade and operational tasks, going from tech staff, insurance, legal stuff, trademarks and all that goes with running such an entity. And the second part, which is the reason why I have Alex with me, is the infrastructure part. So I’m active in those two different areas right at the moment. Essentially, talking about the board, the board runs the Foundation’s daily operation to make sure it works, overviewing things and overseeing things, budgeting, and all the jobs like that.

LV: Is it right that you did a lot of marketing for OpenOffice?

Florian: Indeed. It started about 10 years ago. I’d been an OpenOffice user for quite a while back then and as it happens, just by coincidence, you get into it. And when you don’t say no fast enough, you can sucked deeper inside. So I did quite a job of marketing with them.

LV: What did that actually involve? How do you market something like OpenOffice?

Florian: It’s probably rather special for Germany, and still is, that we have a lot of events. Probably more than other countries. It’s the same with LibreOffice.

LV: What’s the biggest challenge when marketing open source software?

Florian: I think the market has changed quite a lot over the last 10 years. When we started, it was basically that people were looking at you and asking questions like “Is it free?” and “How do you finance yourselves?”.

LV: People are suspicious, aren’t they?

Florian: Exactly, people are suspicious!

LV: People must think “What’s the catch?”, especially with something a big as an office suite!

Florian: Yes, it was always the same question, like “How do you coordinate yourselves?”. And it was rather new. In 2004, Linux on the desktop wasn’t (I mean it’s not extremely popular today if you look at the market share), but back then there were not so many user friendly distributions. So it was all quite uncommon. I think it was the time when Firefox was just started, which people today recognise a lot. So it was all rather at the very beginning compared with today. That has changed. People accept you and expect you to be at trade shows and to have a photographer. We host our own conferences, also for professional audiences that had changed a lot over the last years. And so we have the challenges that we have to face. Like in the beginning, it was explaining what we are, how we do that, and it was with not so much man power, not so well structured. These days, when you run your own conference, when you want to have a target audience like the enterprise sector, you need to reach out and get them involved. The focus has not shifted, but has been widened so to speak. So the challenges change by time. I see similarities with other projects, facing the same issues.

LV: We think one of the major flagship examples of Open Source marketing is Firefox, when they pushed for a really polished Website and they bought that advert.

Florian: We have! Actually, we have. But I think while it might be a good idea to see the impact that this first effort had, I think it can’t be cloned. The time sector changes, someone has already done it. So I think the impact would not be as steep as it was back then. But of course, we always try to reach out to non-IT audiences. Together with our bank we had a quarter of a page and they had two or three sentences presenting their investment strategy, because as a foundation you have to invest in stock, and we had about three quarters of that space to talk about us. What we do, and how we do. It was quite interesting because we were talking to an audience that was not mainly focused on IT.

LV: Are there any groups that you really focus on? Like getting LibreOffice into schools or governments.

Florian: We are focused on everyone because we have a rather wide target audience. What actually happens is governments are a rather large adopter of free software, so we obviously cover it a lot with them because they use it on a wide scale. So to give you one example, we have a large list of adopters in various countries. The occasional sector on the international level is, from what I can see, not so much represented at the moment. We are making a trial in Germany in Stuttgart. We try to gather some experience here. And otherwise, there’s a couple of events we try to attend, but they mostly focus on the IT target audience.

LV: Do larger groups still have some prejudices against Open Source?

Florian: Not so much. Every once in a while of course such discussions pop up but they are not really to be taken seriously. People are rather open. They know it is principle first. We have quite a few strong grounds out in the market already. I think nowadays LibreOffice is one of them. And so, especially in the European market, with the creation of the foundation of the Stiftung, that’s rather a sign of trustworthiness so to speak because you don’t just set up a Stiftung in five days. It really is a chunk of work and you really need to do professional work to set that up. It gives you quite a lot of credibility. But what I mentioned before with the times having changed, things get much better in those terms. Now you have questions like “How do you do a migration?”, and that’s what we always try to tell people, “The software is free, you can use it free, you can edit it and all those freedoms, but if you want to deploy it on a large scale, you need some professional support. It’s the same as for proprietary software, there’s no difference. That’s a message that you probably have seen in our press releases recently. We also work on a certification program to it from the TDF side. So by having a good ecosystem and professional partners, you are able to roll out large migrations and deployments. It’s an important message at each stage I think, and not so much how good or bad free software is.

LV: Have you seen a change in attitude since the NSA and Snowden leaks last year?

Florian: Yes, I think so. Looking at the press or at personal friends who are also not so much into IT, they are at least twice about where to host their data and what to do, and who to give their data to. That makes quite a difference. In terms of LibreOffice, I think that its a message we have been spreading for quite a while. Like, you have open format, you have no window lock in, so we’ve giving exactly the same message. Of course, it’s been amplified these days the concerns that have finally made it to the public.

LV: So let’s think about the current situation with Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice. It seems uncomfortable to have two projects doing almost exactly the same thing. What’s your take on it? Could they merge? LibreOffice seems to have much more attention, so what do you think will happen?

Florian: That’s quite hard to answer I think. My take is, back in 2010 we had this hard decision to make: what should follow. Back then, there was no realistic chance to have ownership of the project. A truly open, independent project. So we took a decision and, looking at numbers of contributors and the feedback we generally get, I think it was the absolutely right thing to do and still is the right thing to do. If you look at today’s market, what I can say from all the people I know in migrations when a new software release is due for roll out, like for the city of Munich, or when the first initial steps to a free office are taken, in nearly all cases it’s LibreOffice. So I’d like to not so much talk about what others do, but rather the way that we have taken it is a good one.



LV: Do you speak to the OpenOffice guys? What’s the sort of contact? Is anyone else talking about eventually merging the two together?

Florian: So I’m not aware of talks like merging. We of course have good contacts. We meet at the trade shows. They attend mostly the very same trade shows that we attend. We have good times. People from former times, sometimes from the OpenOffice org times, but we try to focus on improving LibreOffice. What we always say is that our door is always open. Our project is really transparent and people can always contribute to it. And that is working quite well. And speculating about what could happen, or what would have happened, is rather hard.

LV: Yes, but we just think about the argument about dilution of effort. It often makes it hard to spread the message when there are multiple products doing the same thing.

Florian: Yeah, to explain the story about what happened and why things have happened is not so easy for people who are not so close in the project. And of course shaping a new brand, because we had to come up with a new brand back then for legal reasons, so we came up with LibreOffice. And creating and shaping a new brand when there is a brand that we before had shaped for 10 years, because it takes time. Looking at the feedback we get, especially looking here in Germany, we have got good feedback. People have very much in support of LibreOffice, and we’ve seen the statement of the city of Munich, where in October 2012 where they said they will, with the next rollout, go to LibreOffice. A strong community and all those attributes that we try to come out with, they claim to be right. For us, that’s proof that we are doing the right thing.

LV: Where any other names considered apart from LibreOffice?

Florian: Quite a chunk!

LV: Can you give us some examples? We interviewed Richard Stallman a couple of years ago and he seems to regret using the term Free Software because it’s got mixed up with shareware. He said, if he was creating the term now, he would rather it be called Libre Software or something.

Florian: This is reflected in our statute. We have this mission statement of the Foundation’s objectives. I don’t know it word-by-word, but it says we produce free open libre software, so we have all of those three words in our statement. Of course, we had a hard time coming up with a names. The problem was back then that we didn’t know how long they would last. There was a chance that we could work with the brand, and so we didn’t know how the time we invested would work out.

LV: Wasn’t LibreOffice a short term name originally?

Florian: It wasn’t short term. We wanted it to be there on the day we made the announcement to prove that we were serious about what we were doing and wanted to have a release and to give it a name. So we came up with LibreOffice.

LV: Because it was the OOO Fork before, wasn’t it?

Florian: Not one-to-one. In terms of code, it was a mixture. It was the code with some of our own Go-OO enhancements. So it was not just Go-OO rebranded, there had been some more work into that. But of course LibreOffice came up after quite some evaluation. You know, you think you try to draw some levels, and you ask different people from various countries, and we knew that instead we wanted to have a Foundation with a different name than the project, that’s what we wanted to have.

LV: Because was the product and the website.

Florian: Indeed, and we didn’t want that. To be distinctive with the Foundation, as a leading entity in the community, and with the software on the other side, we said we want to have two different names. We wrote a rather large list, I think with some good and lots of stupid names for both. And then, in the end, I think it was Michael who said, “you know, our brand is like a baby, it needs to learn to walk”. So, of course, when you’ve been used to the other brand for 10 years, or even more, anything else just doesn’t sound right some how. And I think nowadays, we all like the brand. But we had a large list and we ask people, “do you like this name?”, “how does it feel?” and “can you pronounce it properly in your language?”.

LV: There was quite a bit of negative feedback at the beginning.

Florian: Look at! We lived with the brand for 10 years and people were aware of that and now it was a different name. It’s new and everything that is new at the beginning and not so comfortable with it, and not so familiar. I think that was to be expected, and it was only for a few weeks and then that was over. Nowadays, it’s a strong brand, quite recognised. Whatever name you come up with, there will always be somebody saying that it is stupid or I can’t pronounce it, or I don’t like it. But in the end, we took a fair amount of time to come up with the brand, and for TDF we were sure we wanted to keep the name. We needed an entity that was short and even if we could have taken the brand, we didn’t want to have a foundation by the name, at least as far as I recall after all these years, we wanted to have a different name for the entity. So that name was sure to be in on the long term. For the software, indeed it could have been that four weeks after we could have taken the brand, and move forward with that, so it wasn’t a sure, despite all the work invested in LibreOffice’s name, whether we would keep that. And as history tells, we kept it and were quite happy. So of course we invested lots of time to not come up with a temporary name and then see if we need to come up with a new one. It was quite a lot of work that we invested in that, and I think it’s quite nice. I know in the beginning, I wasn’t so happy with it myself with the name. At least, I recently backed up all data and read some comments people gave on the name and I think it was me saying, “oh it’s ok but I’m not totally happy”, and nowadays I’m rather happy with the brand. So it really needs to grow, and you need to get comfortable with it and familiar.

LV: We had a big discussion about the name of our magazine. Half the challenge is just making the decision. That makes it then, and we think that’s what’s happened with LibreOffice.

Florian: Indeed! Yes, we had a rather long list with nothing that had a majority. So we had about five or ten candidates that could work and in the end we voted, but it was a big decision.

LV: A lot of people just don’t like change though.

Florian: Indeed.

LV: We remember seeing a while back on Mac Rumours, or something, that Apple has changed the icon for iTunes for OS X v10 and there were 600 comments read. And people were even saying they would never buy and Apple product again! It was quite scary.

Florian: Absolutely, it needs to grow. If you get an agency to come up with a brand for you, it costs a fortune because they spend a considerable amount of time thinking and analysing. I think they are just sitting in a room around a table with a very large list of names, just like we did. I’m quite happy with our branding of LibreOffice. That reminds me that I have actually brought something for you, to show you’re like me, because I love LibreOffice!

[Florian pulls out some LibreOffice stickers]

LV: Everybody loves stickers!

    • Mike Saunders

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