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LibreOffice

LibreOffice 5.2, the free, open source alternative to Microsoft Office gets the job done. Yet there are compromises.

At a glance

For: Free. Open source. Feature rich. Runs on old hardware. Can open most document formats.
Against: Not as polished as paid-for alternatives. Lacks cloud integration. Inconsistent user interface.
Maybe: Comes with graphics app, equation editor and database. No Outlook-like mail client.
Verdict: All the power of Microsoft Office without the price tag or the polish.

What is LibreOffice?

LibreOffice 5.2 is an office suite that rivals Microsoft Office yet costs nothing. There are versions for Windows, OS X and Linux along with a portable edition that works from a USB drive.

If you’re on a tight budget and have a Windows PC, LibreOffice is by far the best alternative to Office. It is more complete than Google Apps and leaves Apache OpenOffice for dead.

OS X users have a good alternative free option. Apple’s iWorks suite is free with new Macs. Even so, you might prefer LibreOffice because it has better Microsoft Office compatibility.

LibreOffice looks and feels more like Microsoft Office than iWorks. If you know Microsoft Office, moving to LibreOffice will be less of a wrench. It also includes a database unlike either the OS X version of Microsoft Office or iWorks. If you need a simple database and have no budget, LibreOffice would be ideal.

Some Linux distributions include LibreOffice either as standard or as an optional download. It’s a more straightforward choice than using a tool like Wine to run Microsoft Office.

Free alternative

Because LibreOffice is open source there is no business model behind the software. You can donate — money and Bitcoin accepted — on the download page, but this is optional.

Other “free” software suites often extract a price from you in subtle ways. You may have to pay to unlock key functionality. With Google Docs, you agree to accept advertising and being a data collection source.

iWorks is free, but only when you spend well over $1000 on an Apple computer. That’s stretching the meaning of free. Some other free apps extract money from you later. There’s none of this with LibreOffice.

A full office suite

LibreOffice is among the most complete office suites, free or not. It includes more apps, functionality and features than every free alternative. LibreOffice almost matches the most popular paid version of Microsoft Office 365.

It doesn’t include a mail client like Outlook and there’s nothing like OneNote. That’s hardly an issue as there are good free alternatives from other sources.

When you download LibreOffice, you get all the apps in one package. There’s no piecemeal adding of components. Installation is straightforward. Office 365 installs components as separate apps. There is only a single LibreOffice entry point.

Writer:

Office suites include plenty of tools, but the word processor is fundamental. It’s the app everyone uses sooner or later.

Most people considering LibreOffice wonder about Writer’s compatibility with other word processors. It’s an understandable concern, but if anything, it’s misplaced. Writer is compatible with almost every popular word processor format. It reads everything. There are more converters than Microsoft Office including obscure and forgotten formats.

The other misunderstanding is that Writer doesn’t have all the features found in Word. Again, a misplaced concern. Few users come close to scratching Word’s surface. If there is a function missing in LibreOffice Writer, it is something almost no-one uses.

Clutter

While there’s nothing missing in Writer, the user interface isn’t as elegant as Word’s. It still looks old-fashioned in comparison.

Or perhaps we should say it looks desktop Linux-like.

Both Windows and OS X have made huge strides in their user interfaces over the past decade or so. The focus is on productivity and getting distractions out-of-the-way. Most Linux apps still have long menus. Sometimes nested menus. At times finding commands is hard until they become familiar.

Writer’s display shows clutter around the edge of the document. There is a top display of icons and a sidebar. There seem to be more menu items than in Word. The interface is busy. Perhaps too busy.

LibreOffice far from minimal

With Word you can hide almost everything to have clean, minimal workspace. That’s not the case with Writer. Not everyone prefers minimal displays. If you feel they help your productivity, you might do better elsewhere.

No doubt Linux fans reading this will wonder what the fuss is about. The technical ones will be more concerned about feature sets, more willing to learn and, well, more engaged with their software. They may think things are fine the way they are.

Yet if LibreOffice is to break out of this niche then it needs to improve in the UI department. Until that happens, everyday users are going to feel more comfortable with Microsoft Office. If LibreOffice doesn’t want to break out of the Linux niche, that’s fine too. There is a demand for its approach.

Calc

Every usability point made about Writer applies to LibreOffice’s spreadsheet. There is the same clutter. And the same functional richness. Excel fans and power users may find favourite features are missing. Yet Calc has all the necessary functions for most people’s needs.

While you can drop any Word document into Writer and know you’ll be able to work, that’s not true with Excel and Calc. There are small incompatibilities. A Word user can be productive in Writer straight away. An Excel user will take time adjusting to Calc and some won’t like the experience.

That said Calc is complete. It handles large, complex spreadsheets with ease.

Impress

Impress follows the pattern of Writer and Calc: plenty of functionality, the same screen clutter. Like Calc and Excel, loading complex Powerpoint files into Impress can disappoint. In testing it struggled with some Microsoft fonts. There are workarounds, but newcomers to LibreOffice may find this frustrating.

Base

Like Microsoft Office for Windows, LibreOffice includes a database. Base compares well with Access. Again, the user interface is not as polished. In performance terms the two are similar, experienced Access users could start working on Base projects immediately.

One reasons a Mac user might want LibreOffice is to run databases. Microsoft does not include Access in the OS X edition of Office 365.

While Microsoft Access has a proprietary feel, it integrates well with other Microsoft products. Base seems closer to open source databases like MySQL. It also appears to be a good, free way of getting into basic database development.

LibreOffice also includes Math an equation editor and Draw a graphics app. There is no Microsoft Outlook-like mail client. That’s not likely to bother most LibreOffice users. If you need a heavy-duty mail client, you should look elsewhere.

User interface

For years the user interface has been LibreOffice’s weak spot. Microsoft ironed out the inconsistencies in Office a decade ago. LibreOffice’s developers say the latest 5.2 version has brought interface improvements. But there are still places where things don’t work as you might expect.

This is clear the moment you open LibreOffice. The first screen you see is something called the StartCenter. Thumbnails of recent documents appear in the main windows and a list of folders and app icons appear in a left-hand column.

Click on Writer, Calc or any of the first five create document icons and a blank new document opens. Click on the sixth, for a Base database, and a wizard opens.

This may make perfect sense, but it’s not a consistent user interface. Close the document you’ve just created and the Startcenter is no longer there, you have to open it again from the main menu.

Missing polish

None of this is terrible. You’ll get by just fine. Yet it illustrates just what you pay for when you subscribe to Microsoft Office 365: you get polish.

That polish may feel cosmetic. Some readers may dismiss it as unimportant, but it’s the polish that makes many everyday users who spend a lot of time with office software more productive. It makes less confident users feel comfortable. Yet, many LibreOffice users will never notice.

There are some other odd or less than perfect behaviours. On a Mac, OS X will add LibreOffice as an option to the Open With menus. So you can right-click on, say, a text file in the Finder and open it in LibreOffice. Except it takes a long, long time to open. This happens regardless of the file format you’re opening. It seems the operating system is opening a new instance of the entire LibreOffice app.

Nothing to lose

Despite a handful of annoyances, LibreOffice has all the features most people are likely to need from an office suite and then some. The few missing features are for specialists.

It may lack surface polish, but under the hood the code seems solid and reliable. Performance is, on the whole, good too. There are annoyances, but not many and given the price, it would be churlish to complain.

If you don’t like Microsoft Office, are strapped for cash or have a philosophical objection to commercial software, LibreOffice won’t disappoint.

iPad Pro 10

“You like the iPad because it’s simple. But if you’re using the iPad as your primary computer, you may just like it because it’s a challenge.”

Watts Martin hits a nerve writing iPad-only is the new desktop Linux.

Martin says people who use only iPads for their computing do it because it’s a challenge. He says: “Figuring things out is part of the allure”. This, he says, is just like things were — maybe they still are — with desktop Linux.

When desktop Linux roared

Remember desktop Linux? Kids ask your parents. It was huge in the late 1990s and peaked around the year 2000.

At the time many thought Linux would replace Microsoft Windows for day-to-day desktop computing. Although a handful of organizations imposed it on their workers, It never got beyond being a fringe freak show. Yet it shook Microsoft and had a widespread effect on commercial PC software.

Desktop Linux was hard work. There were practical reasons to use it. Linux needed fewer computing resources, it would work well on older, cheaper computers. Eventually Microsoft responded by trimming the fat on its software.

Free and open

Linux fans would find political or philosophical justifications for choosing a more difficult personal computing path. They’d talk about it being free, about how it was open source and so on.

One common idea at the time was that Linux forced users to get down and dirty with how computers worked at a basic level. This,  the theory says, increases people’s understanding of computing. The knowledge would, in turn, make them safer and more productive.

This idea sounds great until you realise it takes a day to recompile an obscure but necessary piece of code that everything depends on.

Freedom has a price

While the freedom to tinker aspect of Linux could be useful. More often it was a terrible time sink. You could spend hours or days down software rabbit holes.

Desktop Linux was more difficult than Windows or Apple’s operating system. Maybe it didn’t challenge developers so much. They spend all day using esoteric commands and compiling code. But for those of us with little coding experience, desktop Linux was challenging. At times it was an ordeal.

Martin writes:

Don’t deny it, folks who prefer the iPad to the Mac or PC: you like the challenge. It was awesome to check out and edit files in my company’s Github repo and make a pull request, all from the iPad.

Myke Hurley made an observation on his Analog(ue) podcast that even if you could prove that a given task was easier on the Mac, he’d still rather do it on his iPad because it’s just more fun. I absolutely get that.

Pioneering

Now, this is fine. There’s nothing wrong with people choosing difficult paths. They are pioneers, they find ways through the thickets for the rest of us to follow.

One of the reason that OS X is so good today is Apple built it on FreeBSD. OS X stands on the shoulders of open source giants.

FreeBSD isn’t Linux, but the two have a lot in common. Both are Unix-based and both are open source. Many commands are similar. Hacking around in the OS X terminal is a piece of cake for anyone who mastered Linux.

Tweakers of the world unite

Moreover, open source pioneers wrote and tweaked a lot of code powering modern desktops.

Some of today’s iPad-only pioneers may be developers who fix code. It’s unlikely they’ll fix or improve iOS because it is a proprietary operating system.

Even so, they will be helping to find ways through technical thickets for the rest of us to follow later. They’ll figure out how to cope with, say, the iPad’s lack of a formal file system. They’re more likely to be writing useful new apps than parts of the underlying system.

What’s more, they’ll won’t all be passive consumers of technology. Many will submit bug reports and feature requests to Apple’s developers. We’ll get better tablets and tablet software thanks to them.

So while Martin is right about iPad-only pioneers doing it for the challenge, their curiosity and exploration isn’t a waste of time. iPads and other tablets are the future of personal computing, it may take years until they are the mainstream, but the pioneers will help us get there sooner.

Linux Today Australia

In the late 1990s and early 2000s I worked for Australian Linux Today. At that time open source was a vibrant, yet immature, market.

Visiting the Open Source Open Society 2015 conference in Wellington this week was like watching someone else’s child who you knew as a smart but awkward teenager, transformed into a smart, professional adult.

Open source grew up.

Linux didn’t dominate

When I was writing daily about Linux, the operating system and apps were already hard at work in data centres, on servers and on high-end workstations.

The IT market was still moving away from a model where servers came with an expensive to buy and expensive to support operating system linked to the hardware maker.

Some of those OSes were fully proprietary. Others were versions of Unix although they often had proprietary branding and non-open components.

Much of my writing centred on asking how people and companies could make a living from the new model. We all knew that money could be made from selling services, but that didn’t look like enough revenue to sustain technology companies and jobs.[1]

So the open source crowd spent a lot of time trying to create related products, usually apps, that they could charge money for.

Desktop Linux proved a diversion

There was something else going on. The open source movement looked to displace Microsoft on the PC desktop. Linux set out to challenge Windows and open source apps jockeyed to capture share away from the likes of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop and MYOB.

In one sense the PC open source explosion never happened. In part that was because Microsoft changed tack to see off the threat. Among other things the price of desktop apps fell. The commercial software developers bundled more value into their products and attempted to shorten the time between releases.

Most of all, they had to sharpen their act. That meant creating cleaner, more robust applications. It was about this time the overall reliability of everything PC related switched from not-acceptable to not-all-that bad.[2]

Open source everywhere

There are still hold outs who use desktop Linux. I thought I might see some at Open Source Open Society 2015. In the event I think I briefly glimpsed something that resemlbed a desktop version of Linux, but in truth the conference was dominated by devices sporting the Apple logo.

That last sentence would have enraged the open source community in 2000. Today there’s little of that kind of sensitivity.

And anyway, Apple’s OS X is, like Linux, a Unix operating system. Large parts of OS X are open source.

Android

Android is the other operating system widely seen at the OSOS2015 event. While there’s some debate about the relationship between Google, Android and open source, at core the phone operating system is fully open. You could grab the source code and create your own Android fork.

Even Microsoft and Windows have embraced open ideas in many ways since 2000.

Sure, it’s not perfect. There are question marks, but while open source never won a pitched battle against proprietary software to conquer the PC desktop, open source DNA is everywhere you look.

Open source economics

Perhaps the most grown-up thing about today’s open source is that businesses have learnt how to use it to make money. This was mentioned briefly by Catalyst IT founder Don Christie in the session on when to choose open or closed source software.

Open source companies make money from wrapping services around free software. It’s not as much money as selling popular proprietary software. Services don’t scale as quickly as a runaway hit app.

Selling services doesn’t subsidise as many overblown long lunches. Nor does it require as many well-paid salespeople. On the other hand, because many services are charged by the hour, it does mean plenty of good jobs for people with the right skills.


  1. This turned out to be the case, the economic changes of moving from proprietary to open were devastating for most companies. Many didn’t make it. On the other hand, the possible death of moving to open source trumped the certain death of not moving.  ↩
  2. In hindsight, it’s easy to forget just how flaky most software was at the time. It was also before auto-saving was perfected so crashes that lost a whole day’s work were not unknown.  ↩

From Linux Today in 2000. 

Was it prophetic? Maybe, but the prophet wasn’t me. I interviewed Bob Bishop for a newspaper and wrote this for Linux Today.

The Australian Linux Today website linuxtoday.com.au no longer exists, but there’s this snippet at the parent Linux Today site.

Can Free Software Liberate Poor Countries?

By Bill Bennett, March 2000

During his press conference at Sydney’s Linux Open Source Expo, SGI chief executive Bob Bishop floated an interesting concept. He told journalists Linux is creating a huge amount on interest in countries like Russia, China and India.

Bishop says, “They are adopting Linux because it is open. The low-cost is important, but the openness is more important. People in these countries don’t like the idea of a uni-polar world. Linux is multi-polar.”

He could have added that users in these countries can’t afford the huge license fees demanded by first world software companies. This lesson was brought home to me personally some ten years ago when I met Computer Associates CEO Charles Wang in Wellington, New Zealand.

Piracy on Soviet mainframes

Wang told me he had just returned from the recently dissolved Soviet Union. There he had attended the first conference of Computer Associates users. Some fifty large Russian organisations had met to discuss various aspects of running CA’s software on their antediluvian mainframes.

Apart from their ability to snare the normally crowd-shy Wang to Leningrad there was one other remarkable thing about this meeting – no-one had paid for a software license.

This was odd because CA had annual licensing. The software was designed to stop working if fees were not paid. Because they had plenty of time, good skills but few resources, the Russian programmers found their way past security traps that stop western users from pirating the software.

Not locked in to proprietary software

This kind of ingenuity is likely to see users in these countries make huge progress in an Open Source world. In some cases they are starting with a clean slate. This means they are not already locked into the economics of proprietary software. It’s a situation many in the west might envy – if everything else about lives in those countries wasn’t so difficult.

Bishop says Linux and free software will bring Russia and China back into the global software business. They certainly have world-class programmers. Developers in these countries are starting now on Linux applications – they are barely behind the west in terms of skills or experience. But even if they were, one of the key things about Open Source is that because the code is shared, it creates a much flatter playing field. It’s what Redhat CEO Bob Young describes as a real free market in software.

Open source has another big attraction to users from behind the Iron and Bamboo curtains – it means there are no secret back doors. Bishop says that they fear proprietary operating systems contain backdoors included at the insistence of the US government so that federal agents can snoop. He says, “When you’ve got the source code you can find any back doors and close them.”

At the end of the 1990s, Linux looked like it could challenge Microsoft Windows as an alternative for everyday PC users. Linux has come a long way since then. And Microsoft scored an own goal with the confusing, incomplete and often annoying Windows Vista.

Yet desktop Linux failed to break out beyond a hard-core following of geeky devotees. Windows now faces bigger threats than Linux.

Meanwhile, Linux struggles to gain traction.

When desktop Linux was news

A decade ago I wrote for Australian Linux Today. At its peak, my posts would be read by tens of thousands and attract hundreds of comments. Being slashdotted was addictive.

Apart from the odd loon, most discussion was informed and intelligent. Internet.com couldn’t make Linux Today pay, at least not in Australia. The parent Linux Today site lives on under the Jupitermedia banner.

The problem with a free operating system

The demise of the Australian Linux Today site was part of the broader problem with Linux and its inability to reach a wider audience. We had bankable traffic, but nobody in the Linux business bought advertising.

That’s because nobody in the Linux business has a marketing budget. That’s because hardly anyone in the Linux business makes money. Which in turn is down to the fact that Linux is given away.

This meant there was no profit to support the kind of thriving media community that follows Microsoft Windows.

There’s not much today either. More to the point, there’s not even the money to fund the kind of activity that underpins planet Google, mobile computing and the world of Web 2.0 websites-cum-services-cum-applications that now threaten to outflank Windows.

Irony of desktop Linux economics

Ironically, Linux or something similar, underpins most Microsoft challengers. And Vista’s annoyances aside the threat of desktop Linux and open source did much to prod Microsoft into improving its act. Today the company and its products are massively improved.

Today’s Linux distributions are excellent. There’s not much in Vista that the latest version of Ubuntu, 8.10 fails to offer. Kubuntu is possibly better. Fedora is less consumer-friendly, nevertheless a plausible option.

Companies and people freely give their own time and energy to open source projects. That’s great. Long may that continue.

Linux users work at the frontier and continue to pioneer new ideas and technologies that will permeate into the mainstream. But I can’t see Linux ever climbing out of its geeky gravity well and being mainstream. That day has passed.

Linux may find its way under the bonnet (hood if you’re American) of mainstream technologies, it will never be the face of day-to-day computing.