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LibreOffice defends handling of spreadsheet bug

Users disconcerted by Calc’s sort function changes

A new version of LibreOffice’s Calc program has broken many spreadsheets, users say, and a perceived unwillingness by developers to address the problem has sparked an ill-tempered argument.

The problem has to do with a new method of sorting reference cells that diverges from the method used in both previous versions of Calc and in most other spreadsheets that was included in a recent version of the software. The result is that some users, apparently, are seeing formulas return incorrect results in their spreadsheets, leading to data loss.

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Potential problems with new sorting method, which is active by default in versions 4.3 and 4.2.7 of the software, were first noticed in July, but it was eventually included in the stable release of LibreOffice 4.2.7 on October 30.

Some users said years-old spreadsheets suddenly stopped working. One complained that she had to restore spreadsheets from a backup and start using an older version of Microsoft Excel – not a solution likely to appeal to many FOSS enthusiasts.

Developer Michael Meeks, a member of The Document Foundation’s engineering steering committee, drew fire from LibreOffice users as the most visible part of what was seen as a diffident and unresponsive reaction to these issues.

Speaking to Network World via email, he admitted that the severity of the issue had been underappreciated at the outset, but blamed “unhelpful aggression and trolling” for the oversight.

“Passion can often get warped by the well-known discourse issues on the Internet,” he wrote. “That of course is only to be expected, but it has an unhelpful side-effect of occasionally drowning useful feedback from constructive and helpful users.”

He further bemoaned the difficulty of separating the signal from the noise of “a small minority [of] aggressive users who feel entitled to complain and have their (often much more obscure) bugs fixed immediately for free.” Meeks also said that “no-one is forced to upgrade,” and argued that the release notes should’ve given users sufficient warning of the changes to sorting behavior.

He defended the process that was used in this case, calling any data loss “regrettable,” but adding that “no software is perfect.”

Meeks is an employee of Collabora, a U.K.-based open-source consulting firm that contributes to a number of FOSS projects. He stressed that the issue has been corrected – the older sort function will be enabled by default in future versions, and characterized the controversy as “a triumph of openness.”

“That's typical of LibreOffice[:] everything public, from git commits, to discussion about them in the Engineering Steering Committee,” he said. “Anyone who wants can show up, get involved and contribute.”

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