OpenOffice.org has long been one of the top competitors to Microsoft Office, but the open source productivity suite's future was clouded in 2009 when Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, which had maintained OpenOffice.org since late 1999. Oracle eventually donated the OpenOffice.org code to the Apache Foundation, which promises a new release this year.
Meanwhile, buzz has been building around LibreOffice, a fork of the OpenOffice.org code by a consortium of former OpenOffice.org developers known as The Document Foundation.
Like OpenOffice.org, LibreOffice includes a word processor (Writer), a spreadsheet (Calc), a presentation maker (Impress), a drawing and diagramming program (Draw) and a database manager (Base). Superficially, the two suites appear almost identical, and LibreOffice even carries over its version numbering from the last OpenOffice.org release.
Behind the scenes, however, the Document Foundation and its volunteers have been hard at work, cleaning up the code, fixing bugs, and adding features. The new version 3.5 includes more than 30,000 code changes, making it in the Document Foundation's words "the best free office suite ever". Based on my tests, that claim might actually be true, but price isn't everything.
Installation is free, but not easy
LibreOffice is available for Windows 2000 and later, Mac OS X 10.4 and later (Intel and PowerPC), Linux and Linux x64. I installed the Windows version, which comes in two parts: one installer for the applications and another for the online help (available in 107 languages). Version 3.5's new installers are MSI packages, sure to please sysadmins.
Installation took longer than it should, mainly because of LibreOffice's reliance on Java. You can use most of the suite's features without Java installed, but it's required for a few functions and Base won't work without it.
Unfortunately, LibreOffice doesn't come bundled with a Java Runtime Environment (JRE), so you have to download and install one yourself. Keeping current with Java updates and security patches is also your responsibility, which could be a deal breaker for organisations with strict IT policies.
Worse, LibreOffice's Java interface is finicky. I tried installing the latest Java 7, but LibreOffice said my JRE was 'defective'. When I tried again with Java 6, the same applications crashed without explanation. I eventually got it working, but installing and reinstalling the various components wasted a lot of time, which doesn't bode well for unattended installations.
Alternative installation methods are available. Linux distributors typically package their own versions of the suite, and Intel and Suse have produced a Windows installer for the Intel AppUp Center. There's also the PortableApps version, which can run from a USB keychain. Even so, the standard installation method for Windows should be more straightforward, and ideally the suite shouldn't need Java at all.
A familiar feel, yet long in the tooth
LibreOffice's user experience remains virtually identical to OpenOffice.org, though its UI is perhaps a little friendlier. For example, the icons in LibreOffice's Start Center, which greets you when you first launch the suite, are more colourful and have less of a corporate feel than in Oracle's OpenOffice.org releases.
Dig deeper, however, and you'll find plenty of minor UI changes. For version 3.5, the Document Foundation has cleaned up the text of dialog boxes, removed confusing or redundant options and improved prompts and user controls throughout the suite.
None of this is as impressive as the radical UI redesign Microsoft introduced in Office 2007. Count me among those who think Microsoft's Ribbon interface, developed through extensive user testing, gives Office a powerful competitive advantage. But if you hate the Ribbon, you'll appreciate LibreOffice's classic look and feel, which resembles that of Office 2003 and earlier.
Still, subtle UI quirks occasionally make the LibreOffice applications feel clunky. Because it is a cross-platform suite, its menus, dialog boxes, controls and widgets don't always blend in with other Windows applications, particularly on Windows Vista and later.
I also found LibreOffice's font rendering somewhat unappealing. Letter forms don't look as nice in Writer as they do in Microsoft Word, and the line and character spacings feel cramped. As a side effect, the text of imported Word documents sometimes wraps differently in Writer, even though the font faces and sizes haven't changed, just one of the ways in which LibreOffice might disappoint heavy Office users.
Taking on Goliath
Microsoft Office interoperability isn't the only goal of LibreOffice, but it's an important one. The installer goes as far as to set the LibreOffice applications as the default handlers for the Office file formats, even if you have a version of Office installed.
LibreOffice 3.5's Office document compatibility is impressive overall, and it has improved from previous versions. It even does a fair job of reading the XML-based file formats from Office 2007 and later, and LibreOffice 3.5's Draw module includes a first attempt at an import filter for Visio documents.
Nonetheless, working with Office documents is not LibreOffice's real strength. The more complex an Office document is, the less likely it is to render perfectly in LibreOffice. Fonts, placed images, macros, graphs, tables, OLE objects, fancy presentation transitions and text effects are all likely trouble areas, to name just a few.
Similarly, Base offers limited support for Microsoft Access databases by invoking Microsoft's Access database engine, which is available only on Windows. LibreOffice for Linux or Mac OS X can't import Access databases at all. While Base is a competent data storage tool, in terms of front-end database UIs it's no match for Access, which is practically an application platform in its own right.
To be fair, Microsoft makes it difficult for competitors to support its file formats by design, and just because LibreOffice fails to import an Office file correctly doesn't mean you can't create a similar-looking document from scratch. But if you frequently trade complex documents with others, you should be aware that document fidelity between LibreOffice and Microsoft Office is almost never perfect. Also, Office generally allows you to create richer, more aesthetically pleasing documents than LibreOffice.
Steps in the right direction
LibreOffice 3.5 does introduce quite a few new features, but most are best described as subtle or at least incremental. Many are relevant for only users of non-English languages and character sets. Others improve upon the behaviours of existing features.
One significant change is that password-protected LibreOffice files now use AES encryption, which necessarily breaks compatibility with earlier versions of the suite (using Blowfish).
Some new features seem like works in progress. For example, Writer 3.5's word count window can remain open and update as you type, resolving a long-standing issue for professional writers. But that's still much clunkier than Word, which keeps a running tally in the document's status bar.
Writer 3.5 also comes bundled with a new text-proofing tool, but to call it a grammar checker is charitable, to say the least. It can parse only a few simple rules, such as pointing out missing capitalisation or extra spaces in a line. It knows nothing about proper sentence construction, and it certainly can't flag passive voice, for example, or assess Flesch-Kincaid readability measures, as Microsoft Word can.
Incidentally, LibreOffice's spell checker is similarly lacklustre. The supplied dictionary is missing lots of compound words, like "handheld," "onboard" and "smartphone". When I typed "monday" in lowercase, its first suggestion was "Raymond," followed by "Monday". Sadly, these proofing tools don't feel up to professional quality, an unfortunate characteristic of the suite as a whole.
Improvements elsewhere are mostly minor. Calc workbooks can now extend to 10,000 sheets; by comparison, Excel workbooks are limited only by available memory. Graph plotting has been enhanced in both Calc and Impress. There are numerous other improvements scattered around the suite, but few will leap out at you.
Perhaps the most significant new feature is LibreOffice's built-in update capability, which can check for new releases at regular intervals. Through this mechanism, future improvements are likely to disseminate much more quickly.
The Document Foundation is justifiably proud of LibreOffice 3.5, but if you were expecting a revamp on the scale of Office 2007, you'll be disappointed. For all the work that has gone into the new version, most of it is under the hood. Still, if you're a current OpenOffice.org or LibreOffice user, you should waste little time in upgrading to this version, which is more stable and user friendly than ever.
Heavy Microsoft Office users face a more difficult choice. In reality, LibreOffice is not a drop-in replacement for Office, particularly for power users. If you exchange documents with others often or maintain a large archive of Office format files, switching to LibreOffice will take considerable effort, though it may pay off in the long term. What's more, many LibreOffice features still feel half-baked and leave considerable room for improvement.
There is also the future to consider. LibreOffice offers nothing to compete with Microsoft Office's networked components, such as SharePoint, Lync and Windows Live, or for that matter with Google Docs. A standalone desktop office productivity suite may be going the way of the dinosaur.
On the one hand, the considerable effort the Document Foundation has invested into LibreOffice 3.5 has produced a solid product with a lot of promise for future improvement. Businesses that are not yet too tied to the Microsoft Office product family would be foolish not to at least consider it. On the other hand, while LibreOffice 3.5 may truly be "the best free office suite ever", to a certain extent you still get what you pay for.