Effort by Adfinis SyGroup and Collabora bringing open source office to the world of Apple iOS and iPad
For the first time there is a free / open source office suite available on iOS: Collabora Office, thanks to the efforts led by Adfinis SyGroup and Collabora. What started back in around 1992 as the well-known StarOffice, then was OpenOffice.org and now lives on as LibreOffice, is finally available on every relevant platform including (but not limited to) iOS, iPadOS, MacOS, Android1, Chrome OS, Windows, Linux and also in the browser.
There is a lot we want to tell you about this first open source office app for iOS. In this blog we write a bit more on the technical part; the blog at Adfinis, has more focus on the interesting history.
But let us first show how it looks!
Get Collabora Office on iOS from the App Store
There are currently two possible ways to get the app:
Download Testflight through the Apple Store and use this link to join:
This will give you the latest releases – which are not fully tested, and available to just try and test
Download the app through the Apple Store.
Over the past months, more than 60 versions have been released and the number of improvements and enhancements is for more than a hundred!
Built with online innovation
Collabora Online is built on technological innovation. And on a rich history, starting more than 30 years ago by StarOffice, following OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice. We suggest you to read the blog post at Adfinis with interesting details. The innovative part was already mentioned in our first blog post. Collabora Office for iOS is built on the technology that was developed by Collabora to bring LibreOffice to the cloud. An important part of this technology is called LibreOfficeKit. This is a layer allowing to use the LibreOffice we all know on the server side and from there publish documents in the browser. And since LibreOffice is capable of opening the largest possible set of documents, Collabora Online has the same capability in nearly every modern browser!
And there is more that is interesting: the document on the screen is published as tiled images, which means that it doesn’t leave the server, which is especially useful for working online securely. The UI itself, for different platforms, is build with HTML/JS, on top off the VCL, the LibreOffice Visual Class Library. This enables the Collabora app to use many elements of the extensive functionality of LibreOffice’s UI.
A really nice advantage of this approach is that we cover three major scenarios with essentially this one solution:
Online — see e. g. Collabora Online
iOS — what we are presenting you now
Android — work in progress, available through the Android Beta channel
This means that future improvements that are implemented for one platform will also benefit the other implementations.
Native look and feel & finger usage
Apple has put a lot of effort into creating great UX guidelines and great GUI widgets for iOS. However, VCL (the GUI toolkit used within the LibreOffice core) was born long before iOS and it doesn’t look and behave like a native iOS app. And even though development took the path of LibreOffice online, a lot of effort was needed in order to make VCL look, feel and behave more like an actual iOS app.
The sidebar makes settings easily accessible
A very important feature to make the app easier to use, is the sidebar. The sidebar contains contextual features and makes good use of the wide screens of the iPads.
Finger sized resize and rotate handles
Many tasks can be done with the fingers: resizing or rotating an image, change the size of a row or column in a table, etc.
The whole team has put a lot of effort in developing and testing those things work. And honestly we think that the result is quite nice.
Integrating iOS spellchecker
iOS offers spell checking as part of the basic system functionality. We integrated this functionality into the app. So now Collabora Office on iOS nicely uses the system spell checker in order to eliminate misspelled words!
GUI widgets in iOS style
Drop down menus and check boxes have their own style in Apple iOS and so we make the widget in Collabora look similar as much as possible. The result is nice and we’ll try to improve even further. This thanks to the work of for example Collabora developers Szymon Kłos, who wrote a blog post2 about the work of using native widgets in the future, and Tomaž Vajngerl, who gave a presentation about Custom Widget Themes during the LibreOffice Conference 20193 in Almeria.
Handles to select text in iOS style
The text handles look like those of a current iOS app. Currently they behave a bit differently and we work on improving this. That however turns out to be far from trivial.
Inserting pictures through the iOS camera / image gallery
Inserting pictures behaves like in any other app. You can either take a picture with the device camera or select one from your image gallery.
How this helps LibreOffice on Android
As already described above, Collabora leads the effort to use the same approach we use in the iOS app to deliver a new Android app.
During GSOC 2019 Kaishu Sahu did a great job and improved the Android app a lot. Jan Holesovsky (Collabora) is working to improve the situation even further and we should see a public release not too far in the future.
If you’re interested to learn more about the Android efforts or how to join, please contact Collabora.
What’s next for Collabora Office?
While we all work on further improvements, we there are very good reasons to be happy with what has been achieved so far 😉 And of course the good news is that you can experience that yourself.
For the near future, we already have the following things in mind:
Create shiny templates
Implement native widgets / improve UX
Better support hardware keyboards (and shortcuts)
Fix more rough edges
Make more core features accessible (math formulas, image cropping, …)
Reduce number of needed clicks for simple things (change cell background in a writer table, change text wrap of a picture, …)
Note that these points may change — this list is not a road map!
It’s your turn: you can help to make this better!
If you plan to use LibreOffice in an enterprise environment, whether on the desktop, on Android or on an iPad, we strongly recommend the enterprise ready version offered by Collabora. You’ll enjoy the advantages of an SLA, long-term support and last but not least it is a very good way to enhance the development of things like this iOS app!
Let’s be frank: money is very helpful to further speed up the development. So, if your organization plans to use LibreOffice on iOS (or any other platform) we’re happy to get you on board! Please don’t hesitate to contact Adfinis directly or Collabora Productivity to discuss possible ways to support the development.
Some words of thanks
This fantastic work would not be possible without the strong support and investment of Collabora and Adfinis SyGroup pays. Thanks to the entire crew that works hard every day to provide more free / open source solutions to the people out there!
(1 The Android App is still in Beta. The release is expected later this quarter.
3 https://conference.libreoffice.org/2019 )