LibreOffice Suite Features Unique to Open Source Community

Lest anyone complain that the free-software world doesn't offer enough choices, there are now two major open source office suites vying for the hearts and minds of choosy end users.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

March 3, 2011

4 Min Read
LibreOffice Suite Features Unique to Open Source Community

LibreOffice logoLest anyone complain that the free-software world doesn’t offer enough choices, there are now two major open source office suites vying for the hearts and minds of choosy end users. But since both of these products — and LibreOffice — derive from the same codebase, what actually sets them apart? Here we take a look at a few features unique to LibreOffice.

Until last fall, office productivity was perhaps the one niche of the open-source ecosystem where there really wasn’t any competition: Sun’s OpenOffice, which has been around now for more than a decade, was the only game in town. Applications such as Abiword provided lighter alternatives, but for serious work, whether you used Windows, Linux or OS X, OpenOffice had no true open source competitor.

That all changed back in October 2010, when many key OpenOffice developers, unhappy with the perceived direction of the project in the wake of Oracle’s acquisition of Sun, jumped ship and formed the Document Foundation, under whose auspices the OpenOffice code was forked into LibreOffice.

For now, both OpenOffice and LibreOffice remain free, open source, cross-platform and fully compatible with Microsoft Office. And I’ll admit that like most lazy end users whose ambitions extend no further than finding something “good enough,” I’ve stuck with OpenOffice because it was what I already had installed, and it’s continued to work fine for me.

But with Ubuntu set to default to LibreOffice in a couple months — and with other Linux distributions also planning a switch, if they haven’t already made it — I figured it was time to see what I have to look forward to (or not) in LibreOffice come April. So I downloaded a recent build courtesy of LibreOffice Launchpad PPA and fired it up.

LibreOffice Diverges

My first thought upon launching LibreOffice Writer was that it looks almost exactly OpenOffice Writer. Besides some icon and color changes — which probably derive from the fact that the build I used was not from the official Ubuntu repositories, rather than from inherent peculiarities in LibreOffice itself — the interfaces are pretty identical:

LibreOffice screenshot

But don’t be fooled by appearances. Although the word processing GUIs, at least for now, are almost mirror images of one another, LibreOffice already boasts some features that set it apart from OpenOffice.

For one, I was delighted to find that one extraordinarily obnoxious bug was apparently not an issue in LibreOffice. That may matter more to me than to most users, but it’s a huge plus in my book to be able to write footnotes longer than 140 words without crashing compiz.

And beyond bug fixes, LibreOffice already offers several useful features not present in OpenOffice. Here are a few of those new to Writer, gleaned courtesy of the LibreOffice developers’ mailing list:

  • The “status bar” at the bottom of the Writer window now displays icons indicating whether the document has been modified since the last save, rather than an asterisk. Icons probably make more sense to people who aren’t geeks, so I applaud this change.

  • If you enter text such as “wORD,” Writer deduces that you’ve accidentally pressed the caps-lock key. It not only autocorrects the text, but also turns off caps lock for you.

  • Writer now has “navigation buttons,” which look like forward/backward buttons in a Web browser. I was unable to figure out what exactly these do, as they were grayed out in my build, but I presume they’ll allow navigation within or between different documents.

Granted, these improvements aren’t going to shatter anyone’s world, and the long-term fate of LibreOffice will probably have much more to do with licensing considerations than with relatively minor features. A decision by Oracle to make OpenOffice “less free” will go a lot further toward ensuring the longevity of LibreOffice among users who want their office applications open source and available at zero cost.

All the same, it’s significant that in just the few months since the OpenOffice and LibreOffice codebases diverged, there are already appreciable differences between their word processing applications (to say nothing of other programs within the office suites, which have received their own sets of updates). If nothing else, the features noted above prove that LibreOffice is more than just the product of an ideological rift among developers. It’s set to become an independent office suite in its own right, and may well become the new face of free, open source office productivity.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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