Fellowship interview with Florian Effenberger

Florian Effenberger

Florian Effenberger

Florian Effenberger has been a Free Software evangelist for many years. Pro bono, he is founding member and part of the Steering Committee at The Document Foundation. He has previously been active in the OpenOffice.org project for seven years, most recently as Marketing Project Lead. Florian has ten years’ experience in designing enterprise and educational computer networks, including software deployment based on Free Software. He is also a frequent contributor to a variety of professional magazines worldwide on topics such as Free Software, Open Standards and legal matters.

Chris Woolfrey: How did you first get involved with OpenOffice?

Florian Effenberger: I started using Free Software very early, and installed my first GNU/Linux in June of 1994. At the end of the 90s, I started using what was, back then, StarOffice, and was involved in the user newsgroups. Free Software attracted me, as I met very open-minded and creative people who were engaged with passion and stood behind important ideas and values.

When the OpenOffice.org project started in 2000, I followed it closely, but didn’t get directly involved before 2004, when my first proper “engagement” took place at a trade show. In 2005, I was offered the role of German Marketing Contact for OpenOffice.org, and from that point on I got more and more involved, until I eventually became the Marketing Project Lead. These days I’m very active with LibreOffice and The Document Foundation, and also serve on the Board of Directors of the German non-profit Freies Office Deutschland e.V.

I’ve wanted to give back something. Being a long-time user of Free Software and benefiting from it, it is a wonderful experience to tell the world about it, and help spreading the word.

CW: What did your time working for OpenOffice.org teach you about marketing and Free Software?

FE: I think marketing serves a very important cause. You can have the best software and the most qualified developers, but when the world doesn’t know about what you offer, nobody will use it. Of course, it’s important to point out, for completeness, that without developers, the marketeers would have nothing to market either; but people don’t always see it that way.

“there’s so much to Free Software that many people don’t see at first glance”

To me, marketing Free Software serves a variety of purposes. Telling people about the advantages of Free Software is one important part of it; there’s so much to it many people don’t see at first glance, like Open Standards, freedom to use, study, share and improve it, and preventing a digital gap. One of the tasks of marketing Free Software is to find the right balance between ideological and technological views, and those that are important for average users who are not so deeply tied to the ecosystem just yet.

Another task of marketeers is to establish communication channels not only to users, but also to corporations who adopt or develop Free Software. Promoting the right image and finding the right balance in what and how you communicate is crucial to reaching a broad audience and conveying the benefits.

CW: Did marketing concerns like these cause LibreOffice to adopt its new name, or was the re-branding primarily for legal reasons?

FE: When we started The Document Foundation, we talked about continuing with the brand that the Community had shaped and built over the past ten years. However, things turned out the way they did, and we are happy and proud of the perception of the new brand. Indeed, LibreOffice was not only chosen for legal reasons – it also marks the next step, an important evolution. This is reflected by the name: previously, we were open, now we are also “libre”, meaning free.

CW: How does the Document Foundation work to ensure that the LibreOffice community retains this principle of freedom within its products and operations?

FE: One of the reasons for setting up The Document Foundation in its current form — i.e. as a vendor-neutral Foundation in German law — was to provide an ideal framework for our community and its ecosystem to grow. All our assets are maintained by the Foundation and based on our open, meritocratic and transparent approach. This ensures that, as an example, the brand and trademark are not under the control of individuals or corporations, but rather by the community itself.

As an example: our trademark policy has been publicly discussed, and we incorporated many proposals and ideas that were raised on the mailing list.

“we have more than 180 new code contributors, more than 60 translators, and roughly 6,000 people contribute to our mailing lists”

CW: Has project growth continued since the height of press interest in the split from OpenOffice?

FE: We are still overwhelmed by the amount of contributions and contributors worldwide. Many organisations and corporations joined our idea from the first day, giving their public statement of support, and we managed to raise €50.000 in donations in just eight days, which is just amazing.

In addition, we have nearly 70 mirrors worldwide, offering LibreOffice for download. Plus, we have now more than 180 new code contributors, providing patches, features and bugfixes for LibreOffice, plus more than 60 localisers translating it into various languages. Roughly 6,000 people contribute to our mailing lists, and about 7,500 opted in to receive announcements on new versions and releases. Plus, we’re very much in line with our release plan.

Besides these numbers the feedback from the community, end-users, and corporations, is just fantastic, and encourages us to follow the path that we’ve taken.

CW: Do you think The Document Foundation does enough to appeal to people who don’t already use Free Software? Roughly what share of the whole office suite market does LibreOffice have?

FE: We’ll be providing detailed download statistics soon, but Windows is one of our most popular platforms. We’ve already seen corporations and organisations migrating to LibreOffice on a variety of operating systems, and the feedback we receive clearly shows that people not only understand why we were taking this approach, but that they also welcome and applaud the path we’ve taken. We have users, adopters and contributors from all fields. Given that release cycles (particularly in larger organisations) tend to be measured in months, it is yet too early to look at a comparison of market shares however; the Document Foundation has only existed for about eight months now.

CW: How do you see the relationship between LibreOffice and OpenOffice developing in future?

FE: The recent announcements made by Oracle about OpenOffice.org have raised new questions. But from the very first day, The Document Foundation has been open for everyone, and we will continue to be open for any interested party to join us. I think the past months have shown that we’re on the right track, that the approach we’ve taken and the model we follow is ideal for a community like ours. I am happy to repeat our invitation to everyone to join us and to contribute to the success of a truly free office suite.

CW: But given what has happened with OpenOffice recently, how will the foundation ensure that LibreOffice’s financing and philosophy remains community-based in future?

FE: The Document Foundation has been established to ensure a healthy framework, independent from one corporation’s business: that’s what our vendor-neutral approach and set-up as a Foundation based in Germany is for. The success of our fund-raising challenge has shown the wide support for what we do, and that people are willing to give. Of course, we work in an ecosystem where corporations can participate and benefit, and we are also looking into a variety of options on how the Foundation itself can raise money for achieving its goals. Our community by-laws take precautions to avoid too much influence based on money rather than on merit.

“our community by-laws take precautions to avoid influence based on money rather than on merit”

CW: In relation to both growth and neutrality, how do you see the relationship between LibreOffice and the Document Foundation in relation to other Free Software projects?

FE: We have seen many successful and important Free Software projects, based on Foundations and comparable structures, with the same virtues that we share — openness, transparency, meritocracy. Each of these projects has their own unique history, and so do we, but the principles they’re built on are comparable. So, I think we are in a good neighborhood.

There are many Free Software projects, and lots of them have quite a few things in common; in terms of governance, but also in technical terms, and as part of the global ecosystem of Free Software. Cooperating and working with each other, exchanging thoughts, ideas, brainstorming, but also discussing issues which more than one project is facing: all these help greatly.

Nobody has to re-invent the wheel, but can benefit from what is already available. A good example is our infrastructure: we’re based entirely on Free Software, from web server to wiki, blog, mail server, mailing lists, our planet, and much more. We not only use it, but also contribute back — for the mailing list system we use, one admin colleague has written tools that are Free Software. Plus, right now we are working on providing cross-compilation of LibreOffice for the Windows platform, to enable building it for that OS from within a free build environment.

Actively cooperating as well as benefiting from other Free Software projects is one of the things that makes the dynamics and fast development in this area.

CW: Given that you fit so well into the community, and that you’re growing at an impressive rate and in keeping with targets, where next?

FE: We’ve set a pretty good basis for the future. The next major step is legally setting up the Foundation, which we’re working on at the moment. We have summed up details on this in a blog post.

The improvements in our development scheme, plus the 180 new developers, and all the other volunteers with their amazing work and their creativity, already help us in making much bigger steps. We’re evaluating future ideas and major improvements to free office suites at large: everyone’s invited to shape the future together with us, and I’m pretty sure it will be exciting. The good thing about The Document Foundation is that it will provide a framework for all future developments, so people have the means of coming up with cool new ideas.