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First LibreOffice Stable Release Nears: What Now?

LibreOffice's first release is near, but what comes next? It's time for LibreOffice to distinguish itself as more than a clone of Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org.

LibreOffice 3.3 is almost here. The third release candidate came out on Thursday, January 13 and looks to be very near complete. It’s not a major upgrade over OpenOffice.org 3.2, but should put the project on solid footing going forward.

The list of show stoppers for 3.3 is just about cleared out. If 3.3 doesn’t turn up new blockers, it looks like we’ll have a final release that looks very much like the RC3.

How does it look? Based on a few hours of testing, it seems pretty solid. The problem with reviewing things while they’re still new, of course, is that it doesn’t really give ample time for reflection or to discover subtle problems.

How Different is LibreOffice 3.3?

One question that I would imagine most have about LibreOffice is, “how does it differ from OpenOffice.org?” Good question, and it’s unfortunately one that the LibreOffice release notes don’t make terribly clear.

First, it depends a bit on which OpenOffice.org you’ve been running. Many Linux distributions tended to get their OpenOffice.org builds from Go-OO.org, rather than the vanilla OpenOffice.org from Sun. And LibreOffice inherits quite a bit of that from Go-OO.org, though it’s not a direct clone. So LibreOffice diverges much less from the OpenOffice.org that you’re probably used to than the upstream OpenOffice.org.

If you look at the feature list, you’ll find quite a few minor updates that are unique to LibreOffice. None are barn-busters, but there are some nice improvements. Nice to see LibreOffice removing some dependency on Java for playing movies and sounds — I hope the unnecessary Java dependencies that Sun pushed on OpenOffice.org will continue to be stripped out.

One difference between OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice is that LibreOffice supports writing to Microsoft’s OOXML formats. There’s been a lot of objection to this in certain circles for a variety of reasons. I think that Jonathan Corbet covered this quite well in LWN (as of this writing, subscribers only — but will be free and visible to all within a few days) so I won’t expound on it too much here. Like it or not, Microsoft still dominates the office market. That means that interoperability between office suites is occasionally going to require writing OOXML.

Most of the writing I do, I do in HTML. Every great once in a while, I have to submit and revise work in Microsoft formats. Or I receive materials in Microsoft Office formats. While I can (and do) remind PR folks that sending press releases in proprietary formats that are prone to viruses is a bad idea, when a client sends revisions in a .docx format, I send material back in a .docx document. If Go-OO or LibreOffice refuse to support those formats, that leaves me with using Word. Not something I’m keen to do.

Long story short — refusing to write the OOXML formats might feel like the right thing to do, but it’s just marginalizing the players that do it. OpenOffice.org and LibreOffice collectively do not have enough push in the market to effectively stop OOXML from being adopted. Refusing to support OOXML on principle just limits their adoption, not OOXML’s. If your job doesn’t require working in the corporate world or with clients that are already using Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010, then it’s easy to stick with the Open Document Format or older versions of the Doc formats. For the rest of the world, OOXML is an unpleasant reality.

It looks like LibreOffice 3.3 will be a competent first release. It improves moderately upon the last OpenOffice.org release and should be good enough for the Linux community to rally around. I do hope that the big Linux vendors and projects will all choose to ship LibreOffice rather than OpenOffice.org in short order. But that’s really only a small foothold even if LibreOffice effectively captures 100% of the Linux market.

Aside from my half-kidding suggestion that LibreOffice adopt Vim-style keybindings and behavior, there are a few things I’d like to see from the project as it progresses that are reasonable.

Suggestions for 3.4

First and foremost, a user interface overhaul. I’m not a Microsoft Word fan — far, far from it. But if you look at recent editions of Microsoft Office and the current release of LibreOffice, there’s no comparison. The UI for LibreOffice is, well, clunky. It was a half-baked copy of Microsoft Office back when the current UI was developed in the 2.0 days (released late in 2005). I’m hoping that the energetic community around LibreOffice will start fixing not only the UI but also the insanely complicated preferences that plague LibreOffice.

Impress does not. At least it doesn’t impress me after having created any number of presentations for talks. It needs to be easier to create slide templates, there needs to be a much better selection of templates, and collaboration is a must. Currently, LibreOffice allows collaboration features in Writer, but there’s no good way to send a presentation to a colleague and see what changes they made. I’ve had to prepare presentations with two, three, or more collaborators and it was not a fun process. Picture dozens of emails and half a dozen iterations of a document before it was done.

LibreOffice doesn’t have to be a Microsoft Office clone though, and I really hope that the group finds a way to make LibreOffice more than “an alternative to Microsoft Office.” People don’t run Firefox or Chrome these days because they’re “an alternative to Internet Explorer,” they run them because they’re better. (Also because IE isn’t available on Mac or Linux… I wonder how Redmond feels about the Windows-only strategy now that IE is slipping behind?) I hope that with a community driven development process — a real one — LibreOffice can take off and shine.

I also hope that the group has a good plan in place to raise awareness about LibreOffice. OpenOffice.org had just started to reach the point that I could mention it to someone outside the community and get a glimmer of recognition. We’re not quite back at square one, but pretty darn close. Plus the amusing fun of explaining the differences between LibreOffice and OpenOffice.org and Microsoft Office.

Feature-wise, LibreOffice is reasonable minor upgrade. If you’re running OpenOffice.org 3.2 now, it’s probably worth upgrading. But keep an eye out for 3.4 and beyond — I have a feeling that things will get quite interesting now.

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