With the release of a new version of LibreOffice this month, it's a good time to look at the two major open source office suites, LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org, to see what advantages each offers, and which is a better bet for end users.
Both products are suites of office applications, comprising word process, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, database, drawing, and math tools. Both also spring from the same code base. OpenOffice.org was created by a German company called Star Division, which Sun Microsystems bought in 1999. Originally the suite was called StarOffice, and it was popular in the European market as an alternative to Microsoft Office. After picking it up, Sun changed the name of the product to OpenOffice.org and released its code as open source. The product retained some popularity in the enterprise, partly because of its cross-platform capabilities and no-cost license.
In 2009, Oracle announced it would be acquiring Sun, and many wondered what would become of OpenOffice.org. When Oracle proved to be less than willing to share its plans for the product, a number of OpenOffice.org community members opted to fork the OpenOffice.org code. In November 2010, they created LibreOffice, to be managed by a new German non-profit called The Document Foundation.
A few months later, Oracle opted to donate the OpenOffice.org project to the Apache Software Foundation, which today maintains OpenOffice.org as a so-called podling project until OpenOffice.org completes the migration process to become fully integrated within the Apache organization.
In the 10 months since LibreOffice split off from OpenOffice.org, the new office suite has maintained a more rapid release cycle than the old 18-month cycle maintained by Sun and Oracle. It is not clear how rapidly OpenOffice.org will update as the suite moves forward within the Apache system, but it's a fair bet that the development cycle will speed up.
LibreOffice's development cycle has put its version 3.4.2 ahead of OpenOffice.org's 3.3.0, in more ways than just version numbers. The LibreOffice team is implementing a lot of fixes that many in that development community felt were needed. For instance, LibreOffice's ability to import file from Microsoft Office is getting better than that of OpenOffice.org. Opening heavily revised and commented Word files in OpenOffice.org still leads to misrendered comments and loads of font issues, while LibreOffice Writer handles revisions, comments, and fonts nearly perfectly. Other fixes include more ODF-compliant color and line support as well as an improved Print dialog box that is markedly better than its OpenOffice.org counterpart.
Calc improvements are also coming fast in LibreOffice, the best of which currently being a much-improved Pivot Table tool (now actually called "Pivot Table" instead of the old "DataPilot" moniker). Pivot tables and LibreOffice don't have a pleasant history: the last time I tested it, opening a spreadsheet with a pivot table inside would cause LibreOffice Calc and every other LibreOffice window to crash, where OpenOffice.org would open the same spreadsheet fine. Fortunately, since LibreOffice 3.4.2, those days are gone. LibreOffice Pivot Tables also now allow for named ranges, which is a great addition.
In other areas, Calc in LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org are pretty much on equal footing. Fonts and basic functions in Excel documents are converted perfectly, though many not-really-that-obscure Excel functions don't come across at all. SUMIF and COUNTIF are there, but not their multi-range/criteria counterparts SUMIFS and COUNTIFS, nor AVERAGEIF and AVERAGEIFS. This makes Calc a bit weak as an Excel replacement in either office suite.
Impress is a better experience all around, and equal in both flavors of the suite. PowerPoint presentations open easily, and fonts and images transfer pretty well. There's a slight edge in this application for the LibreOffice version, which has put the Presenter's Console front and center as an easily installed extension.
These three components comprise the bulk of use for most end users. LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org are pretty similar in performance and features in the other office suite applications, with one exception: LibreOffice Draw now has support for scalable vectore graphics, something OpenOffice.org lacks.
Aside from the code, OpenOffice.org used to have one big advantage over LibreOffice: corporate support. When OpenOffice.org belonged to Oracle and to Sun, enterprises could buy annual support for $90 per seat, which got you support and hooks into Microsoft SharePoint or the Alfresco content management systems. Small businesses could get support alone for $50 per seat.
Unfortunately, that advantage is gone. In April, before Oracle announced its intention to move OpenOffice.org to Apache, it dropped commercial development and support for OpenOffice.org. Now the two office suites have virtually identical support options. Each suite has online forums, newsgroups, and mailing lists. Corporate support is available from some third-party companies, such as the Linux distribution vendors who ship LibreOffice or OpenOffice.org, or any number of consultants that can be found on either project's website.
Support vendors must be certified, so you know you're not hiring some schmoe off the street. Here, OpenOffice.org has the slight edge. LibreOffice, according to Italo Vignoli from the Document Foundation, is "planning a certification program to make it easier for providers of services to be recognized and for corporate users to select a competent partner." OpenOffice.org, though, already has a certification program in place, though it is not clear how or if that program will undergo alterations within the Apache umbrella.
With its rapid development cycle, LibreOffice has already pushed its feature set ahead of OpenOffice.org's. OpenOffice.org may catch up, but the licensing differences between the two projects may hold it back. When OpenOffice.org was moved into the Apache Software Foundation, it was placed under the Apache Software License (ASL) v2. LibreOffice is dual-licensed under the Mozilla Public License and the Lesser General Public License (LGPL) 3.0. That means that while LibreOffice developers are free to incorporate OpenOffice.org code into their project, the reverse is not true. LibreOffice's licenses are incompatible with the Apache license, so OpenOffice.org developers will be unable to directly capitalize on the progress made by the LibreOffice team.
The outlook is not completely dismal for OpenOffice.org. With IBM heavily invested in OpenOffice.org development (its proprietary Lotus Symphony office suite is based on OpenOffice.org), there's a fair chance that some improvements made in Lotus development could find their way into OpenOffice.org.
That's looking ahead, however. For now, it appears that LibreOffice offers a better feature set, and with support options being equal, it's the features that currently make all the difference.
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