One of the things I can never get my head around, is the love affair computer users have with Microsoft Word and Microsoft Office. It’s as if it is an essential piece of software. Because of its cost, people will risk being caught breaking the law with illegal copies. And yet, it’s nothing special, and there are other wordprocessors and office-suites out there which do the job just as well, and in some cases better, at a fraction of the cost.
One such office suite is LibreOffice, and it has the major advantage of being free! And the recent update to version 5.0 marks a milestone in the development of this excellent piece of software. A question could reasonably be asked, how can software be any good if it’s free? Won’t the best software writers go and work for someone who pays them? Well I’ve written stuff before about this. There are different types of free, and it’s as well to know how the difference between free as in no charge, and free as in Open Source. Free programs like Libre Office, as well as Firefox, Google Chrome, and many others, have versions compiled to run on Windows, Linux and Macs, and could be the right things to try, to see if Linux would be a good operating system for you!
Libre Office has a bit of a history. going back to Star Office, a free suite that was given away with computers back in the early days of Windows. Although powerful, user friendliness was awful and I could never get my head around it. As a product, it was going nowhere, and its owners, Sun Microsystems, changed the licence to Open Source and invited programmers to work on the code. Sun, and the other businesses that funded this, didn’t act out of the goodness of their hearts, they wanted a product that they could use, without worrying about licensing and accounting. The first version was released as OpenOffice 1, but also as StarOffice 8, which users would pay for. The difference being that if you bought Star Office, you would get support. Obviously it’s in the financial interests of Sun, that people who pay for support rarely have to call on any! From there on, there was further development, and a split in the team over Sun’s dominance of the project. At Version 3, it divided into OpenOffice and LibreOffice. Most Linux distributions favoured the LibreOffice (non-Sun) branch, and we have now reached v5.
The big question is, how good is it? Well I mainly use the Wordprocessor, and despite the fact that, as with MS Word, it has hundreds of functions that I rarely, if ever, use, I have to say it has a couple that I find essential, and MS Word didn’t have last time I checked, which was, admittedly, some time back, but LibreOffice had them first. The main one being PDF export. You know those fixed documents that come with things you buy, to save the cost of a printed manual? Well you’ve been able to make them with LibreOffice (and previously OpenOffice) since v1. For anyone clever enough (don’t look at me!), LibreOffice has always had a DataBase built in, which is an expensive optional extra in MS Office.
One of the ways that Microsoft can retain its dominance is by getting people dependent on its file formats. How often do you get a document in .doc or .docx format? Well LibreOffice can both import and export MS formats. This page shows you how to make this the default, and many other settings, so that you don’t have to remember explicitly every time.
Finally, how does LibreOffice look? Earlier versions, though practical, would never have won any beauty contests. I’m pleased to say that the new LibreOffice is much gentler on the eye, without losing any functionality! It’s also a lot more responsive. Certain functions are still written in Java (one of the reasons why the escape from Sun, the owners of Java, was such a good thing). However, these are not the most time-consuming ones, and the general impression is that of something which is just smoother all round. This early version 5 is actually 126.96.36.199, and no doubt a few bugs will come to light, to be followed by an update to 188.8.131.52 or something! But don’t let that put you off. So far, it’s looking good!!