Will open source office suites go the way of Thunderbird?

LibreOffice, OpenOffice at risk from Office, Google Docs

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Microsoft's latest entry in the office productivity is such a blatant move towards convergence of mobile and desktop, you have to wonder if they are going too far, too fast.

If mobile and cloud is indeed the new direction of productivity apps, open source office suites must innovate quickly or die.

Microsoft wants to embrace desktop and mobile users as much as possible with their upcoming Office 2013 release, and right now it feels like Microsoft just pulled away from LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice, leaving the venerable open source office suites eating Microsoft's dust.

Those are bitter words to write, but while LibreOffice and OpenOffice have managed to keep a fair bit of feature parity with Office in the past, that is no longer the case. Office 2013's integration with Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud service and the fact that it can run on a mobile device--albeit a Windows mobile device--is a serious jump ahead.

It's not that LibreOffice, which for now seems to be ahead in the feature race with OpenOffice, isn't moving in this direction, too. The Document Foundation first announced the intent to port LibreOffice to iOS and Android back in October. The problem is, they're not there yet, and no one seems to know when the cloud integration will be. Update: LibreOffice developer Michael Meeks has sent in a recent status update on LibreOffice's Android port, however.

One could argue that LibreOffice and OpenOffice have always played catch up with Office, and they always will. Given the innovations of open source within the big data space, I'm not sure I completely buy into that argument. If the community really wanted to blow the doors off of Microsoft Office, it could. But it doesn't, preferring to create the "safe" office suite with basic features that everyone uses.

This gets right into the problem Office has always had: how long can the team at Redmond keep dumping new features into their office suite and expect customers to keep coming back for more?

This is the bet LibreOffice, OpenOffice, and all the other open source office suites have made over the years: that end users will forego the expense of Office and the interminable upgrade cycle and shift to something that just gets things done.

But this is a bet the open source office suites may be about to lose. The jump to mobile and cloud is a big one--a fundamental shift in usage that goes way beyond a "ribbon" or other gimmick. Users want to have instant-access to their documents wherever they may be. Microsoft is giving them that.

Maybe Office 2013 is too much, too soon, and this approach won't work. Maybe it will still be too pricey for end users and IT managers to use.

But when these managers and users look around for a basic office suite that gets the job done and offers cloud mobility, they won't be looking at LibreOffice and OpenOffice--they'll be looking at Google Docs, which already can fulfill this basic and cloud-y requirement.

The time for innovation in the open source community is well upon them, if there is to be any hope of keeping open source office suites alive. But Gmail and other web mail services just proved that native apps like Thunderbird are vulnerable… will a squeeze from Office and Google Docs do the same thing to LibreOffice and OpenOffice?

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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