How Does LibreOffice Stack Up Against Microsoft and Apache OpenOffice?
Back in August of 2013, I began an experiment. Although I had used Microsoft Word on both Macs and PCs for over 25 years, I wanted to see if LibreOffice and/or Apache OpenOffice (then very similar versions of OpenOffice) could replace Microsoft Office. The experiment was to see if I could go an entire month without using Microsoft Office and, particularly, Word. As I reported in my post at the end of the month, I succeeded. In the years since, I have kept returning to LibreOffice as my main word processor, even after experimenting with a variety of zenware writing tools, text editors, and even flirting with yet another commercial office suite, Softmaker Office (which is also a very good product).
I do keep my copy of Microsoft Office 2007 on my laptop in case my on-the-edge freelancing non-career should take me back to corporate America, but I haven’t used it in months except to check some research on comparing Regular Expressions in Microsoft vs. LibreOffice. (I still might write a post about that extremely nerdy subject someday.)
Why Do I Keep Using LibreOffice?
First of all, because I can. LibreOffice Writer and Calc (the spreadsheet module) serve my needs nicely and I don’t have a real need to keep my work in the cloud. Being independent, I don’t need to send copies of Word documents back and forth, either (although I could using LibreOffice or Word).
Second, LibreOffice has improved significantly since it started in September, 2011, after an open-source palace coup against Oracle, which had taken over the project (after buying Sun Microsystems). The insurgents then created The Document Foundation whose sole purpose was to develop their version of OpenOffice, now renamed LibreOffice.
I like the idea of open source software, where development continues, often by volunteers dedicated to making software free for all. People all over the world can use LibreOffice, regardless of means. Although the foundation is based in Germany, the largest number of downloads of the software occur in the United States, the home of Microsoft!
As regular readers of this blog know, I also experiment with other office suites and writing tools. Yet, I keep coming back to LibreOffice because of its advanced publishing features. Although I generally don’t write much longer than a blog post these days, the program is comfortable to me now.
Plus, although Microsoft Word has a huge market share of the word processing world, LibreOffice actually does have some useful advantages over Microsoft’s software.
Advantages of LibreOffice over Microsoft Word
LibreOffice has more options and control when creating PDFs, which has lots of implications for writers who publish their own work via PDF.
LibreOffice also allows you to embed fonts into documents and PDFs. If you send a LO document to somebody who doesn’t have your font on their computer, they can still read it as you designed it.
You can even embed an entire LibreOffice document into a PDF, then reedit that PDF in LibreOffice and repack the PDF with the changes. You can’t do that with Word or with Apache OpenOffice.
You can open many types of legacy files that even Word has trouble opening. These include Microsoft Word versions 1, 2 and 5 (there is no 3 or 4). LibreOffice can also open Lotus WordPro, Quattro Pro, Microsoft Works files (remember Microsoft Works?), many older Macintosh writing and outlining programs, and lots of image formats as well. If you have legacy files around your office or home, you might keep a copy of LibreOffice around just for that.
If you use styles, LibreOffice has more to offer with character styles, paragraph styles, page styles, frame styles, and even some styles for tables and bulleted lists. If you are writing longer documents, LibreOffice offers better granular control than Word, but there is a learning curve to using these styles.
Speaking of granular control, LibreOffice allows you to change hyphenation rules by the paragraph. Word applies hyphenation rules only to entire documents.
LibreOffice also has a much wider range of navigation tools to use for searching and editing longer documents.
If you’ve ever had your computer crash while having a document open, you will appreciate LibreOffice’s better document recovery. I’ve never lost more than 30 seconds worth of writing with LibreOffice (knocking on wood, here). That was not my experience with Word.
LibreOffice has also improved its compatibility with Word and Excel and other Office programs. In particular, LibreOffice usually makes seamless translations between Microsoft and LibreOffice formats, back and forth. (The more complex the document and the more graphics it uses, the more likely some adjustment will be needed, though.) Last week I bought a box of mailing labels and downloaded the Word template from Avery’s website. It opened and worked perfectly, the first time, in LibreOffice.
Added up, this makes LibreOffice a better tool for professional writers, especially those who create long and complicated documents or do self-publishing or create PDFs.
Did I mention this is all at no cost to the user? (Donations are gladly accepted, though.)
Microsoft Word, to be fair, focuses primarily on business office writing, including letters, memos and reports, which are shorter forms. With its grammar checking, template libraries, graphics libraries, and its cloud offerings for easier sharing and workgroup editing, Word is no slouch either. One could argue that Microsoft Word was created for business people first, while LibreOffice was created for writers first.
One could also argue that LibreOffice is a better product because of its competition with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Office.
Is Apache OpenOffice as Good as LibreOffice?
Five years ago, the two programs were developing from almost the same base code, so they were nearly identical. Nearly a year after The Document Foundation announced LibreOffice, Oracle donated the official OpenOffice code repository to the Apache Foundation, a much larger group guiding a large collection of open source products, creating Apache OpenOffice.
I think it is fair to say that the OpenOffice project under the Apache Foundation has not thrived. It is understaffed with just a small collection of programmers and volunteers. In its own board reports (available online), it is obvious that the AOO project managers are concerned about the ability to continue the project. The phrase “limitations of capacity of development is an ongoing concern” repeats itself with variations. Apache OpenOffice has had difficulty just getting out security repairs plus a few bug fixes, let alone increasing features.
The biggest advantage that Apache OpenOffice has is the “OpenOffice” brand name, which is still better known than LibreOffice outside the open source community.
In contrast, the reports from The Document Foundation show that LibreOffice has an enthusiastic, growing community of developers (nearly 300 in 2015’s annual report), better mentoring of new volunteers, a new, glitzy website, and an ambitious release schedule that keeps bringing forth new features and bug-fixes.
LibreOffice offers two versions of its software: a “Still” version (a more bug-free version) recommended for production environments; and a “Fresh” version for those who like more cutting edge software. (I use the Fresh version and have had no problems.) The Fresh version is currently at version 5.3.2, which is a full version ahead of Apache OpenOffice, at version 4.1 (although version numbering is hard to compare).
So while LibreOffice ambitiously improves, Apache OpenOffice is facing an existential threat that would require a sizable infusion of enthusiastic programmers and other volunteers to overcome.
Having two competitive OpenOffice versions, branching out in different directions to serve their users would be ideal, in my opinion. But that is not how things have worked out these past few years.
For all those reasons, I recommend new and experienced users try LibreOffice over Apache OpenOffice (links below). But, of course, the choice is yours.
For Your Information
For those who are unfamiliar with them, both LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice are now the leading versions of the OpenOffice project, which has been open-sourced since 1999. The software features five main modules in one software package: Writer (word processing); Calc (spreadsheets), Impress (a slideshow tool), a vector-graphics Draw tool (for creating simple diagrams to page layout and sophisticated designs), Base (a database program), and also a Math module for working with formulas. LibreOffice is now available in 110 languages.
Both programs use the standard OpenDocument file standard (ODF), not a proprietary file format. (See our Frugal Guidance 2 article The Writer’s Guide to Word Processing File Formats, to learn more.)
LibreOffice is available for Windows PCs (both 32- and 64-bit), Macintosh computers, and a variety of Linux platforms. Apache OpenOffice is not, apparently, available in the 64-bit Windows version. (If you use a modern version of Windows, the 64-bit version is considerably faster.)
Just as I was finishing this article, I upgraded to the most recent version of LibreOffice, 18.104.22.168 (for 64-bit Windows), and it seems to load much faster than the previous version. Now, there may be many other factors affecting the speed on my laptop, so this may or may not be your experience.
LibreOffice Online has an active online version in progress (using HTML5), but it is not publicly available yet. (I haven’t tried it.) A LibreOffice viewer is available on Android, but not a full editing platform. An iOS version is also in progress.
If you want to compare LibreOffice with Apache OpenOffice, you can download Apache OpenOffice from their website.
To learn much more about LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice and other writing software on Frugal Guidance 2, you can click on the Blogging and Editing tab on this page and browse backwards through the articles. (You can also click on the magnifying glass in the menu bar above and enter LibreOffice or OpenOffice into the search box.)
To Read More
LibreOffice vs. OpenOffice: Why LibreOffice Wins on the Datamation website, by Bruce Byfield (a frequent writer on open source software, LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice, see below).
LibreOffice 5.1: Sweet, subtle, and necessary polish by Jack Wallen, Feb. 16, 2016, on TechRepublic.
OpenOffice coders debate retiring the free, open-source productivity suite by Peter Sayer, on PCWorld, Sept. 5, 2016.
Last September, a memo was sent to readers of the Apache OpenOffice developers mailing list, entitled “What Would OpenOffice Retirement Involve?” It is not a recommendation, but a look at how the Apache Foundation could possibly retire its OpenOffice project. To date, the Apache Foundation’s board hasn’t recommended closing the project, but it is requiring the project coordinators to make monthly reports on what it is doing to rescue the project (if anything).
The Document Foundation board reports are less informative, but, since they are done as phone conferences, their recordings are available for listening. Their Annual Reports are much more interesting. As of this writing, the 2015 report is the latest available, but the 2016 Report should, presumably, be approved soon.
Getting away from existentialist discussions, Bruce Byfield came out with a new book, Designing with LibreOffice which is seriously on my reading list (and already on my computer). The book has its own website.
The title image was constructed by the author, using icon images and triangle designs available from LibreOffice’s website and documents, augmented by Photoshop and Topaz Labs plugins.
The Apache OpenOffice logo belongs to the Apache Foundation.