Open office dilemma: OpenOffice.org vs. LibreOffice

Dueling open source alternatives to Microsoft Office match word processors, spreadsheets, and much more; which one should you choose?

OpenOffice.org is one of the leading competitors to the Microsoft Office suite of business productivity applications. Originally developed as StarOffice in the late 1990s, the suite had been managed in recent years by Sun Microsystems as an open source project. But when Oracle acquired Sun in April 2009, the future of Sun's software offerings -- particularly free ones like OpenOffice.org -- was called into question. Before long, key OpenOffice.org developers, unhappy with the status quo under Oracle, began defecting from the project.

The result was LibreOffice, a new fork of the OpenOffice.org code base that's maintained by a nonprofit organization called the Document Foundation. LibreOffice looks like OpenOffice.org and it runs like OpenOffice.org. It even reads and writes OpenOffice.org's OpenDocument file formats. The difference is that LibreOffice is being developed in a fully community-driven way, without oversight from Oracle. (The "libre" in the suite's name is derived from a Latinate root meaning "liberty.")

[ Also on InfoWorld: "10 great free desktop productivity tools that aren't OpenOffice.org" | Track the latest trends in open source with InfoWorld's Open Sources blog and Technology: Open Source newsletter. ]

The question is, which suite should you use? Both OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice recently announced version 3.3.0 of their respective wares. Both are available as free downloads (although Oracle also sells a version of OpenOffice.org that includes commercial support). Which one will be the better bet for now or in the foreseeable future? I installed both to find out.

Installation and language support OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice each consists of six applications, called Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Base, and Math in both suites. The modules provide word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, business graphics, database management, and formula editing, respectively.

Both suites are available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X (Intel and PowerPC). You can also get OpenOffice.org for Solaris (Sparc and Intel). Because I wanted to test the most typical Office-replacement scenario, however, I ran both suites on an Intel PC running Windows 7.

The executable installers for both suites are similar; they ask the same questions and the install scripts seem identical, although LibreOffice setup is a little slower. I chose Typical Install for both.

LibreOffice has support for a broader range of languages than OpenOffice.org.

OpenOffice.org's biggest installation advantage over LibreOffice is that it comes bundled with the Java Runtime Environment (JRE). Having a JRE installed isn't strictly necessary for either suite, but it enables some features, and the database manager won't run without it. For LibreOffice, that means the additional hassle of downloading and running a separate installer. Then again, the JRE that came bundled with my OpenOffice.org installer wasn't the latest version.

OpenOffice.org offers localized versions of its suite in 25 languages (more, if you include older releases). LibreOffice differs in that it provides a universal program installer but separate downloads for localized online help. The LibreOffice website lists these Help Packs for a whopping 113 languages. In practice, however, only about 54 of them are supported on Windows, and installing them is cumbersome. You not only have to run the separate Help Pack installer, but you must also run a Custom Install of the main suite to activate locales other than English. Still, if multilingual support is important to you, LibreOffice may have an advantage.

Note that while both suites ship their installers as executables, under the hood they are Windows MSI files. That should be good news for enterprise admins who need to install the software on large numbers of PCs -- except that only LibreOffice's MSI file worked properly on Windows 7. Bummer. (The OpenOffice.org MSI worked on Windows XP, so hopefully this is a bug that will be resolved soon.)

Migrating from Microsoft Office Once installed, OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice are similar in far more ways than they differ. The overall menu structure is identical for both products, except where LibreOffice has added features not present in OpenOffice.org. If you're familiar with one, you'll have no trouble with the other.

Fit and finish differ somewhat between the two suites, with icons and other assets swapped out, though they're sized and positioned exactly the same on both. Overall, I thought OpenOffice.org's icons were a little easier for new users to understand, but of course that's all subjective; really, it's a wash.

I had expected Microsoft Office compatibility to be a major area of competition between the two suites, but alas, not much work seems to have been done there. Both suites handle files from Office 2003 and earlier reasonably well, but support for the newer, XML-based file formats is poor for anything but simple documents. XML-based Excel workbooks survive the transition the best, but migrating .docx and .pptx files is sure to be arduous. If anything, OpenOffice.org was slightly more faithful to Word font styles in some test cases, but overall presentation was so lousy it hardly bears mentioning.

If you're familiar with OpenOffice.org, you'll be right at home in LibreOffice. 

Even the old-format Office files aren't fully supported. Only a portion of PowerPoint's transitions and text effects are available, although the ones that aren't tend to degrade gracefully. How Writer handles complex Word documents can be unpredictable, to say the least, particularly when it comes to fonts. Calc has done an admirable job of supporting basic Excel macros, but not all capabilities are available there either (and it might be unreasonable to expect full compatibility). Unfortunately, LibreOffice does not appear to have done much of anything to improve on OpenOffice.org in these areas.

Still, the similarity between the two suites is overwhelmingly positive when you consider that LibreOffice announced its first stable release in late January. I found no difference between the two offerings either in performance or stability. Neither crashed on me, even when handling documents designed to put productivity apps through the wringer.

New features in LibreOffice What LibreOffice does bring to the table are mostly small, incremental improvements to the functionality of OpenOffice.org. For example, LibreOffice Calc ships with a new set of default key bindings that should be more familiar to users accustomed to Excel or other spreadsheets. Writer includes a new dialog box that makes it easier to format document title pages. And while Microsoft Office support hasn't much improved, LibreOffice does a better job than OpenOffice.org at handling Microsoft Works, Lotus Word Pro, and WordPerfect documents. Various bugs have been fixed, as well.

Perhaps the most significant new feature found in LibreOffice is support for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) files in Writer, Impress, and Draw. SVG is an open standard for vector-based graphics that can be exported from many popular drawing applications, including Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Visio, and many CAD programs.

There's a check box in LibreOffice's options to enable "experimental features." Oddly enough, even with this checked, several new improvements mentioned on the LibreOffice website don't show up in the Windows version. The site mentions that LibreOffice can save OpenDocument files as "flat XML" to make it easier to manipulate the documents using XSLT transforms, but that option doesn't appear in the Save As dialog box on Windows. Also, certain new UI elements, such as radio boxes next to complex menu items, don't appear in the Windows version of the suite. It seems most of the new development for LibreOffice is being done on Linux, with Windows as only a secondary platform.

Which open source office suite is for you? Ultimately, for many customers the decision to use either suite will depend on the extent to which they are wedded to Microsoft Office file formats. Customers who maintain a large number of complex Office documents may find a wholesale migration unworkable. Otherwise, the choice between OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice weighs largely on two factors: support and future development.

LibreOffice can handle Scalable Vector Graphics images in Writer, Impress, and Draw. 

For enterprises with ironclad support requirements, OpenOffice.org may be the only option for now. Oracle offers an edition of the suite tailored for individuals and small businesses that includes commercial support for $49.95 per head. For $90 per head, an enterprise edition is available that covers additional migration, as well as configuration tools and connectors for Microsoft SharePoint and the Alfresco content management system. The enterprise edition requires a minimum purchase of 100 licenses, so it will cost you $9,000 to get in the door.

The Document Foundation, on the other hand, is more a loosely knit development organization than a software vendor. It does not market any commercial version of the LibreOffice suite, nor does it offer any support contracts. Doubtless, third parties will step in to provide support for the suite, and perhaps some already do, but there are no links to support providers on the LibreOffice website. At this early stage of the project, support is largely limited to mailing lists, IRC channels, FAQs, and online documentation.

The other consideration, however, is what happens next. OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice draw from the same code base, so most of their features are identical -- for now. But Oracle's commitment to maintaining a desktop office application suite is unclear, and with many key OpenOffice.org developers having defected to the Document Foundation, it seems likely that LibreOffice will improve more quickly than Oracle's version of the suite. Already LibreOffice 3.3.0 contains enhancements not available in OpenOffice.org 3.3.0.

The great thing about both suites, however, is that your decision need not be set in stone. Because the OpenDocument formats are truly open standards, there is no lock-in like you have with Microsoft Office (or even specific versions of Office). Future versions of either suite will be able to open your documents equally well, and in all likelihood, so will any future competitors. If enterprise-grade support is your priority, go with OpenOffice.org for now. But no matter what size your organization, LibreOffice is definitely one to watch.

This article, "Open office dilemma: OpenOffice.org vs. LibreOffice," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in applications and open source at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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Tags open sourceapplicationsSun MicrosystemsMicrosoftsoftwareDesktop productivityOpenOffice.orgOracle

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Neil McAllister

InfoWorld

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