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 non-profit organisation 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."

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 localised 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 localised 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.