LibreOffice vs OpenOffice

The Clear Choice

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While LibreOffice and OpenOffice have a shared past, LibreOffice outstrips OpenOffice in contributors, code commits, and features.

A search for comparisons of LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice returns over 8.3 million results. That number comes as no surprise, given that LibreOffice and OpenOffice are the best-known open source office suites and share a common past. However, what is surprising is how shallow many of those comparisons are. Many offer only a superficial glimpse at either office suite from the viewpoint of an unsophisticated and undemanding user. Often, the comparisons are obsolete. Even more importantly, many comparisons strive for a false sense of objectivity by declaring that any differences are minor. However, by every possible standard, LibreOffice outshines OpenOffice and shows OpenOffice to be outdated. To pretend otherwise is a distortion of the truth.

As you might know, the two office suites share a common history (Figure 1). Both originate in OpenOffice.org, a project run by Sun Microsystems from 2000-2011. In fact, OpenOffice claims to be the legal descendant of OpenOffice.org because in 2011 Sun passed OpenOffice.org to Oracle which in turn passed it on to the Apache Foundation – but the concept of ownership has little relevance in open source. At the same time, Go-oo, a semi-official fork that had operated quietly since 2007, created LibreOffice and its governing body, The Document Foundation. Go-oo had been contentious in OpenOffice.org because it advocated a faster pace of development, so the creation of the two new projects seems to have formalized a division that already existed. Certainly, from the beginning, LibreOffice and OpenOffice showed little love for one another.

Figure 1: The OpenOffice.org family releases, as of October 2020. Source: The Document Foundation

Also from the start, OpenOffice faced challenges that LibreOffice did not. To start with, OpenOffice uses the Apache License, while LibreOffice uses a dual LGPLv3/Mozilla Public License (MPL). A major consequence of this difference in licenses is that LibreOffice can borrow code from OpenOffice, while OpenOffice cannot borrow code from LibreOffice. Just as importantly, from late March 2014 to March 2015, OpenOffice had a total of 16 contributors, 12 of whom stopped contributing when IBM stopped supporting OpenOffice. Since then, OpenOffice has been reluctant to publish the number of contributors, but considering that OpenOffice claimed 120 in November 2012, it is doubtful that the number today is more than a small fraction of LibreOffice’s 1,722. The result is predictable: OpenOffice has not had a major release since 2014 and only 11 minor ones. In comparison, during that time, LibreOffice has had 13 major releases and 87 minor releases. And in 2019, LibreOffice had 15,000 code commits, while OpenOffice had 595. Equally inevitably, LibreOffice has attracted important corporate supporters such as Red Hat and Collabora while OpenOffice has been unable to replace the void left by IBM eight years ago. OpenOffice’s continued existence has been quixotic, even admirable, but the project is simply not structured to compete.

The Feature Disparity

Aside from Go-oo’s contributions a decade ago, the two projects initially shared a common codebase. Even today, enough code remains the same that extensions that run with one often run with the other releases, although less often than a decade ago. No doubt the mutual use of Open Document Format (ODF) for files continues to retain compatibility. However, the differences do seem to be growing – mostly due to LibreOffice’s innovations. The difference can be seen in the download sizes: LibreOffice’s DEB download file is 195MB, while OpenOffice’s is 159MB. In other words, LibreOffice is close to one quarter larger, despite the fact that it has removed redundancies in the code and rewritten parts for greater efficiency, operations that OpenOffice has yet to duplicate.

About eight years ago, I saw a copy of a LibreOffice internal document that listed all the LibreOffice features that OpenOffice lacked. To my surprise, there were hundreds of line items. Even though many were minor, the differences are far too numerous to list, let alone to explain each one. However, among the more significant features, LibreOffice included an extensive overhaul of the interface, rearranging menu items, repositioning items in windows to make them more accessible, adding themes, and in general creating a more user-friendly look. These changes are especially noticeable in the Charts subsystem for spreadsheets, where the colors were updated from OpenOffice.org’s stuck-in-the-1990s look. In addition, LibreOffice introduced themes and a choice of user interfaces that includes an MS Office-like ribbon toolbar. None of these changes have any equivalent in OpenOffice.

LibreOffice’s new features are visible in all the modules, especially Writer and Calc. But in the interests of space, I will let Writer stand as an illustration of the others. Outstanding features in LibreOffice Writer that have no counterpart in OpenOffice are:

  • The folding of Table Design into the other styles, where it is easy to find and can be copied over into other files
  • Default list styles with choices of bullet and numbering systems, saving users the need to set them up
  • Export to EPUB format (this feature is still being fully implemented, although it is often usable now)
  • Support for HarfBuzz, a font-rendering app that allows the modification of OpenType and True Type files through a series of codes added in character fields, making LibreOffice a full-fledged desktop publisher

However, for many users, the most important improvements in LibreOffice Writer are the continued enhancements for exporting to MS Word. This effort can be a moving target, because Microsoft often alters its formats, but reliable import filters to MS Office are essential to many companies’ adoption of LibreOffice. Much of this work is due to LibreOffice’s strategic alliance with Collabora, which builds compatibility solutions for its customers and donates its improvements to LibreOffice, contributing over a third of LibreOffice’s commits in 2019. In the recent 7.3 release, the MS Word import and export filters are at a stage where most routine business and academic documents can be reliably exchanged with those not using LibreOffice. By contrast, OpenOffice’s MS Word compatibility is much more erratic.

The Latest Releases

For still another perspective, you have only to look at the latest release notes. On November 27, 2021, OpenOffice announced the release of OpenOffice 4.1.11. The complete list of improved or enhanced features for this release is:

  • Enabled persistent adjustment to help text font size
  • Added Fontwork to Insert menu
  • Added missing PDF export icon to File menu

In addition, four bugs fixes were thought worthy of mention:

  • New security warning introduced with Apache OpenOffice 4.1.10 blocks useful functions
  • The Windows installation file has missing properties and lacks a code signature
  • Windows installation: Lost adapted texts after switch to NSIS 3.x
  • Chart lost when saving in ODS format

Furthermore, no new or updated dictionaries or languages were added.

In comparison, the release notes for LibreOffice 7.3, announced February 2, 2022, included so many new features and improvements that a complete list would be too long here.

In LibreOffice Writer, some of the improvements included:

  • Support for shaped hyperlinks
  • Start of support for linked list, character, and paragraph styles
  • Tracked changes monitors moved text better
  • Faster PDF conversion for complex documents

In LibreOffice Calc, highlights included:

  • Improved speed for opening several formats
  • Improved speed for charts and calculations

Both Draw and Impress had the following improvements:

  • PowerPoint compatible screen sizes improved
  • New surfaces added to 3D objects

Finally, the following general improvements were made:

  • A dialog for barcodes and QR codes
  • Standardized line widths implemented throughout
  • Official binaries optimized for greater performance
  • Enhanced and updated help files
  • Various improvements to MS Office filters
  • Four new languages added, including English (Israel) and Klingon
  • New scripting libraries

What more needs to be said? Even allowing for the differences in point releases, the overall picture is clearly one of a faltering project versus a thriving one. The idea that OpenOffice can compete with LibreOffice simply does not hold up.

The Clear Choice

OpenOffice remains an adequate office suite. OpenOffice.org gave it, like LibreOffice, a firm foundation. In particular, OpenOffice’s choice of styles gives it a decided advantage over many alternatives. If you only write short or one-off documents, OpenOffice may more than fit your needs. Yet the inescapable fact remains that with no major changes for over a decade, OpenOffice is showing its age. The project is barely keeping up with bug fixes and is not keeping up to date with modern demands the way that LibreOffice is. The only argument I have heard in favor of OpenOffice is that, like Debian’s Stable repository, it uses older, more patched code, but given OpenOffice’s coding resources, even that argument does not stand up. In fact, LibreOffice is probably better able to fix its bugs. All that OpenOffice has in its favor is name recognition, which only lures users into downloading a vastly stunted alternative.

The sensible response to the current situation would be for OpenOffice either to stop limping along or merge with LibreOffice. In fact, LibreOffice proposed a collaboration in 2020, but stubbornness and perhaps old grievances ensured that it was angrily rejected. Free software means that OpenOffice supporters are free to develop anything they choose, but that does not mean that the rest of us are obliged to support them. When asked to choose between LibreOffice and OpenOffice, the only rational choice is LibreOffice.

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