08 June, 2020

Collabora vs ONLYOFFICE

Since the Nextcloud Hub release switched from ONLYOFFICE to Collabora Online as default, lots of people have asked why. Is one better than the other? Let's talk about this.


Let me first say - the decision wasn't pure technical. As always, relations and other reasons play a role. I'll try to cover both aspects, but there is always more. With that out of the way, let's first look at how ONLYOFFICE got into Nextcloud.

Frank, myself and others in the Nextcloud community have wanted to integrate office in our collaboration platform for most of the past decade. Previously, we* had invested quite a bit in getting a collaborative document editor into our private cloud. The Documents app was a from-the-ground-up developed ODF editor with a unique and very clever design, built by KO GmbH (now sadly defunct). We together put resources in integration and further development and we hoped other (open source) businesses would invest and contribute too, so the solution would grow in time. Also, we had hoped some customers would be willing to pay for it. Both of these did not really come true, and KO sadly didn't survive.

* Note that I use 'we' here loosely as I wasn't really involved back then, so think 'the core team', as a slowly-changing team of people, including Frank, Jan, Arthur and others.

Fast forward to our launch on June 2 2016 (happy birthday!), and a few months later we announced Collabora Online integration. We had worked with Collabora to make this available not just to enterprise customers, as before, but to all users thanks to the 'CODE' docker image. As you know, we care deeply about community/private home users and this was of course a great step forward.

But running docker, setting up a reverse proxy on a second domain with proper certificates - it isn't easy and does not work for everyone. So we had to keep maintaining the Documents app a little, as some users still could only use that.

ONLYOFFICE vs Collabora

Meanwhile, a new open source online office solution came around, ONLYOFFICE. Let's talk for a sec how they compare Collabora, as the two could not be more technically and non-technically different!

Technical: how they work

The way Collabora Online works is:
An embedded version of Libreoffice runs on the server. It reads the document, then 'streams' the rendered document as image tiles to the browser client, which shows it to the user. The browser client does some of the menu's and lots of smart things like showing the cursor, other users, text selection etc, but many other components like pop-up menu's and sidebars are also streamed from the back-end, giving relatively good feature parity with LibreOffice. This strategy is responsible for giving LibreOffice, for example, desktop-level table style editing, better than any other online office solution.

The way ONLYOFFICE works is:
The document is converted on the server to a JSON file which is streamed to the browser client. The browser client is the full office suite, editing the document. Once done, it sends back the JSON and the server merges and exports it back to a file. A fully html5 canvas based front-end means a relatively pretty user interface and any javascript dev can go hacking.

So what does this mean?

  • LibreOffice is much heavier on the server and network connection, but uses a bit less client resources which tends to help mobile devices with battery life during editing
  • You get the full Libreoffice file type support. Decades worth of obscure file formats, it is all there.
  • ONLYOFFICE has a more modern UI, writing it all in Javascript so it is far easier to be mobile-friendly. You can imagine how useless those old LibreOffice paragraph settings dialogs are on a mobile phone screen!
  • In theory ONLYOFFICE would be much easier to integrate in web apps in general. Most app frameworks can consume a javascript or json component, a simply streamed, tiled image is far less flexible...


On document support, three things.

First, with regard to the Microsoft file compatibility - this is ALWAYS hit and miss. I can't objectively claim either is better or worse, you will always find a file that works well in one but not the other. But you will also find lots of MS Office files that won't work in Office 365, or break the desktop version between Mac and Windows or even just from older versions, because Microsoft screwed up their own compatibility.

Second, one thing I can say: if you migrate from Collabora Online to ONLYOFFICE and most of your files are ODF files because that's what Collabora uses by default, you're in for a bad experience. The ODF support in ONLYOFFICE is quite basic. But with MS Office files they feel on-par to me and that's what probably matters for most people. (sadly, yes)

Third, if you need any other file types - Collabora can handle a LOT, due to its long legacy. Word Perfect anyone?

For other technical capabilities - I probably be best off simply pointing to the comparisons both made themselves:

Social/historical differences

Let's talk about the second big difference between Collabora and ONLYOFFICE: their roots. Collabora builds on and is part of the LibreOffice community, a decades-old project, and consists of long time open source believers. Development is open and accessible and there are lots of individuals and companies that work on and can provide services for its code base. ONLYOFFICE on the other hand, is quite new to open source and only a bit over a dozen people have contributed to the code base. Their open core model if of course less than favorite in the open source world, though it is still miles better than proprietary - some people seem to lose sight of that sometimes, if you ask me. For an end user, the development model makes little difference, in either case.

let me emphasize two things.
First, it is awesome that we have TWO open source office suits. Building one is an amazing accomplishment - we have had others in the past but most are no longer really viable due to the massive amount of resources required to keep up.
Second, I think it is great that ONLYOFFICE decided to open source their product. I believe most people really under estimate what it takes to turn around your business model so radically. And if you're unhappy with decisions made, in either case - contribute, get involved. That is how you change things in open source.

Getting Office in Nextcloud

So, as I said in the History section, by 2017 we had three office solutions integrated in Nextcloud. One was easy to install but unmaintained and quickly deteriorating. The other two were harder to install but much more complete.

You know we're ambitious people, so indeed we have thought about and discussed this situation forever. And at some point, Robin started to really investigate what would be possible. After looking deeply at both, he finally managed to create a proof of concept with ONLYOFFICE. What he did was:

1. Separate the 'converter' part from ONLYOFFICE, the javascript front-end and the 'rest'
2. Made a separate binary of the converter, package the javascript and rewrite all the glue that lets them interact in PHP
3. Make this thing install-able as one big blob, acting as alternative 'server' with a proxy component that ties it all together

This was a LOT of work, but after polishing it, we had something we could show to the ONLYOFFICE people. They were initially not huge fans of what we did - no surprise, as it was an ugly solution. We discussed this for a fair bit and in the end, we agreed on an approach.

The result was what we made available last January with the first release of Nextcloud hub. We saw it as a first step towards deeper integration. Watch the video below to get an idea of what it looked like!

📺 view video on YouTube

And then...

After release, two things happened.
First, ONLYOFFICE has sadly been unable to focus much on the integration with Nextcloud. There was a long wish list we had - there is a lot you can do to make the experience nicer, from removing/disabling/hiding duplicated features like the build in chat and file handling to making file collaboration work in other apps like Talk, or adding certain features that connect even deeper like @mentioning users for example. Unfortunately, this didn't happen. No blame, there is a lot happening in the world right now!
Second, Collabora was inspired by the work and while we didn't think we could make it install-able with such ease, they obviously know their own technology better. And indeed, they did make it happen! Besides that, we worked with them to improve the already pretty good integration further, allowing you to edit documents while in a video call or chat in Talk.

As our focus continues to be on providing the best experience possible, we simply looked at that: what gives, right now, the best experience. And thus our latest video shows Collabora instead...

📺 view video on YouTube

Note that this doesn't mean we don't like ONLYOFFICE. 😍 This just changed the default you get on installation. Both solutions are very good and continue to be available for users! And perhaps things will change for the next release. Given the large differences at every level between the two, I consider it a benefit to have both approaches available for Nextcloud users!

So is Collabora better?

I will let Captain Marvel answer that.

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