This open-source office suite proves that forking isn't always the kiss of death.
In the open-source movement, the
forking of a project is often a contentious matter, and can lead to the demise or
mothballing of the applications that spawn from the original software. In many
ways, it's a "nuclear option" as developers choose their allegiances and take
their skills with them. Often, the result is the loss of momentum as well as
mindshare for all the spawned projects. But it's not an inevitable one: the
January release of LibreOffice 3.3 shows that sometimes forking can lead to a
LibreOffice 3.3 is as polished
as one might expect in a project that, for all its novelty, has many years of
development work behind it. Although it's probably not going to gain widespread
acceptance in the corporate world, any outfit that's looking for a solid
toolset for users who don't require a lot of handholding, or integration with
Microsoft's Office server applications, could do much worse than to choose it. For
many users, this will have everything necessary in a desktop-productivity
suite, for an unbeatable price: free, that is.
The LibreOffice story began in
late September 2010, when a group of dissidents from the OpenOffice.org project
established a group known as TDF (The Document Foundation). The new
organization dedicated itself to continuing the legacy of the open-source
office suite based on the former StarOffice from Sun Microsystems. The systems
maker had for many years sponsored, if not actually directed, OpenOffice.org.
After Oracle purchased Sun in
early 2010 and terminated the OpenSolaris operating-system project later that
year, the dissidents who would form TDF feared that a similar fate would befall
their pride and joy. Oracle was nevertheless invited to join the foundation and
donate the OpenOffice.org brand, but the company asked those dissidents who
were council members of the organization to resign on the grounds of conflict
of interest; many did so by the end of October 2010.
However, TDF continued work on a
fork of OpenOffice.org 3.3, based on development work in progress at the time
of the schism. A number of open-source vendors, including Canonical (sponsors
of the popular Ubuntu distribution), Red Hat and Novell adopted the TDF suite
under the name LibreOffice. The Turkish Pardus 2011 distribution claims the
honor of being the first major release to include LibreOffice 3.3 as its
default office suite.
LibreOffice 3.3 is available for
BSD, Linux, Mac OS X, Unix and Windows, and is licensed under the terms of the
GNU LGPL (Lesser General Public License) version 3. Obviously, one of the most
attractive features of LibreOffice is its nonexistent price tag. Like many
open-source tools, its support is community-based. One should expect to see
big-name Linux distributors such as Novell and Red Hat offering support
packages, once they begin bundling it with their desktop offerings.
The suite consists of five or
six applications, depending on how one counts them: the Writer word processor,
the Calc spreadsheet, the Impress presentation creator and its associated Draw
component, the Math equation editor and the Base database manager; a PDF
creation tool is included as well. If those names seem familiar, they should; they
are identical to those of the corresponding tools in OpenOffice.org 3.3, which
was released Jan. 25, just hours after LibreOffice 3.3.
But LibreOffice is more than
just a badge-engineered version of OpenOffice.org. A number of features are
unique to LibreOffice, and that itself is a significant achievement,
considering that those have been implemented in the roughly three months since
TDF forked from the OpenOffice.org effort.
The significance of these
differences will, of course, be more or less, depending on one's need for them.
For example, someone who works with a wide range of document formats will be
impressed by LibreOffice's ability to import Lotus WordPro and MS Works files,
and the improvements to the import of WordPerfect files. On the other hand,
document publishers will appreciate the ability to import SVG (Scalable Vector
Graphics) pictures into Draw and Writer, and to edit those images in Draw.
Presentation gurus will benefit from the ability to import slide decks
containing charts that were stored in PPTX (PowerPoint 2007/2010) format.
People who live and breathe for the manipulation of document files with XSLT
(Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation) can expect to save themselves
some headaches by being able to load and save ODF (Open Document Format)documents in a flat XML format for
I'm a big fan of the new default
for the "Save As" feature of the LibreOffice applications, which only displays
appropriate document formats. This won't stop a user from selecting a nonstandard
format if that's really necessary, but it certainly makes it less likely that
he or she will do so by accident. The new title-page creation and management
tools will also appeal to different users, from the student to the most
Meanwhile, the mad-scientist
types (who most organizations keep tucked away in the cubicle or the office
furthest from the front door) will enjoy the ability to test the as-yet-unfinished
features of LibreOffice, which are exposed in the suite's "Experimental" mode.
Other nice features common to
LibreOffice 3.3 and OpenOffice.org 3.3 are the matching of case for auto-corrected
words and the embedding of standard PDF fonts when desired. The export of RTF (Rich
Text Format) files has been substantially overhauled to fix what TDF calls
"critical" errors that, in worst-case situations, result in data loss.
Installing LibreOffice is a
simple process once the appropriate version is in hand. However, some
components require a Java virtual machine, especially in the case of the Base
database manager; the installer doesn't check for one. But the first run of
the application suite will prompt the user if a supported JVM is absent. The
only downside to this approach is the dozen or so error messages that appear
during the startup.
I tested the suite on Mac OS X
10.6.6 and on Windows 7. The only noticeable difference between the two is that
the Mac version of the suite installs as an application bundle, whereas the
Windows version installs as discrete components. In addition, TDF notes that
the Windows installer has been integrated into a single build containing all
current language versions. This reduces the size of the complete package
significantly, from 75GB to 11GB. Thanks to the common code base, many extensions
and templates designed for OpenOffice.org can be expected to work on LibreOffice
without modification; some of these are even included in the distribution.
In many ways, LibreOffice 3.3 is
a mature office suite, more mature in some respects than any other open-source
project that I can name. Although few people wanted to see OpenOffice.org fork
into two camps-one driven more by the distrust of Oracle's motives than
anything else, and the other driven by loyalty to the software behemoth-the
result is impressive. The dissidents who formed TDF have produced in
LibreOffice a stable and versatile suite of productivity tools that any shop
not closely tied to the Microsoft application stack should consider for
P. J. Connolly began writing for IT publications in 1997 and has a lengthy track record in both news and reviews. Since then, he's built two test labs from scratch and earned a reputation as the nicest skeptic you'll ever meet. Before taking up journalism, P. J. was an IT manager and consultant in San Francisco with a knack for networking the Apple Macintosh, and his love for technology is exceeded only by his contempt for the flavor of the month. Speaking of which, you can follow P. J. on Twitter at pjc415, or drop him an email at email@example.com.