You really don't need an expensive or 'works only with Mac' office suite to get some serious work done; this free of cost, open source Office Suite is all you really need.
By Swapnil Bhartiya, CIO
LibreOffice (aka LO) is among the best and the most used free (of cost) and open source office suites. The just-announced, brand new version 4.4 boasts some new features and a much needed design overhaul.
A bit of history
Talking about design, I must say that has been the number one complaint of LibreOffice users (the second being it’s absence on mobile devices). LibreOffice still shows remnants of the design from the ‘90s.
Italo Vignoli, one of the co-founders of TDF, once told me that when they forked OpenOffice, which was acquired by Oracle through Sun Microsystem, they inherited a lot of junk code piled up inside OpenOffice.
When I asked about the ‘state’ of the junk code, Italo Vignoli told me “I would not define OOo source code as junk, even if we all know that it was in dire need of a rejuvenation. If we look at translation of German comments, 90% is gone and 10% has yet to go (but of course is the 10% most difficult to find inside the source code). We can probably use the 90/10 split as a good indicator of the general situation versus legacy OOo source code that needed rejuvenation.”
The primary objective of the developers was to clean up that code to improve compatibility with Microsoft Office and polish its design. You don’t start ripping out and replacing the wallpaper in an old house; you first take care of the foundation and make it stable before getting into cosmetics. That’s exactly what LO teams have been doing so far.
Vignoli dives into the biggest challenges for the LO teams, “Interoperability is the most challenging activity, and is eating the majority of developers time, together with new feature development and improvement of source code quality. With LibreOffice being deployed by an increasing number of organizations, interoperability is not limited to other office suites but also to enterprise solutions generating documents based on legacy file formats such as RTF, or very old DOC or XLS files. Of course, many of the larger deployments are contracting LibreOffice certified developers for this task, and the benefit is shared with the entire ecosystem (as all patches are pushed to master, once they have been tested).”
With the 4.4 release, it looks like the developers have cleaned up the code enough to deal with the design of the product. The new LibreOffice not only shows a sleeker toolbar, it has also added a side panel; similar to the one found of IBM Lotus Notes which also inspired Calligra Suite by the KDE community.
I found the sidebar to be more space efficient than the bulky Ribbon UI developed by Microsoft for their office suite – the Ribbon takes up over 50% of the screen space. A sidebar makes more sense on modern widescreen monitors where the horizontal space gets wasted.
In LibreOffice 4.4, the sidebar is enabled by default, but you can enable or disable from the ‘Views‘ option. What’s even better is that you can disable the main toolbar to save more space. Go to ‘Views > Toolbars >‘ and uncheck the ‘Standard’ and ‘Formatting‘ options.
But the question arises: is that a modern look and feel for an Office Suite in 2015? Vignoli agrees and says, “First of all, we should agree on the concept of “modern look and feel”.
Microsoft has almost managed to convince every user that the Ribbon is modern and ergonomic, but the reality is that it is not ergonomic. We have been working extensively on the user interface of LibreOffice 4.4, and the results are showing even if the look and feel has not changed. Thanks to this effort, the size of the design team has increased and this will be further reflected in the future.”
He believes that the Android version of LibreOffice will help in improving the overall look and feel of the office suite. He says, “The user interface on mobile devices has to fight with space, and this is a compelling reason for creative solutions.”
Under the hood
In addition to the UI improvements there is a lot of work done on improving the code base. Some of the major improvements in LO 4.4 include support of OpenGL transitions in Windows, and improved implementation based on the new OpenGL framework. You can now sign PDF documents when you export a document as a PDF file.
Talking about the compatibility issues when I talked to Vignoli today he said, “Every Microsoft Office document comes from a different version of the same pseudo-standard format. Of course, this makes it difficult to handle the entire spectrum of potential issues.”
“We run a roundtrip compatibility test on thousands of documents (save the file with Microsoft Office, open it with LibreOffice, save it with LibreOffice in the Microsoft Office format, open it back with Microsoft Office to verify that the file is not only readable but identical), but this is still not enough to get to 100% interoperability (although we are down to a small number of corner cases),” he added.
Another issue that I faced with my editor at ITworld was: I use LibreOffice and Microsoft’s track changes were breaking everything in LO (and even in Google Docs).
Vignoli explained, “Track Changes are handled in a completely different way on ODF and OOXML (to the point that Microsoft is still not supporting them in ODF) and this is probably one of the reasons why they are not always handled as intended. Here we are going back to the fact that there should be only one document standard, but you know the story…”
I am not certain when, and if, track changes compatibility will improve between LO and Microsoft Office. What I do know is that with this release LO is working on improving track changes – with new buttons in the Track Changes toolbar – and AutoCorrect features in Writer.
Other areas of improvement include: improved import filters for Microsoft Visio, Microsoft Publisher and AbiWord files, and Microsoft Works spreadsheets. The new version also comes with new import filters for Adobe Pagemaker, MacDraw, MacDraw II and RagTime for Mac.
Grab it now
LibreOffice is available across platforms – Linux, Mac OS X and Windows; there is a LibreOffice Viewer for Android.