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LibreOffice 3.3: Hands-On With the Free Office Suite


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The LibreOffice project came about late in 2010 when it became increasingly uncertain what Oracle's intentions were for OpenOffice.org, which it acquired after purchasing Sun.

LibreOffice is overseen by the Document Foundation, which includes open source luminaries such as Red Hat, Ubuntu, and even Google. Because of these backers, LibreOffice is essentially the new kid on the block when it comes to cost-free office suites, and the LibreOffice folks have been busy putting together their first major release--version 3.3, which is now available for download at LibreOffice.org.


LibreOffice's print dialog box has been overhauled compared to OpenOffice.org.

Two downloads are necessary: the installer for LibreOffice itself, and a "help pack" executable, which contains US English helpfiles. If the latter isn't installed, clicking the Help menu takes you to the documentation section of the LibreOffice Web site.

Installation went fine on the Windows Vista and XP machines I use for testing. Rather rudely, LibreOffice unpacks its installation files to the same folder as the install .exe file, but doesn't delete them afterward. This was a problem with Openoffice.org too and is easily fixed by a quick click and drag to the Trash, but it could be of concern to newbies.

Upon double-clicking the LibreOffice desktop icon in both machines, I received an error that Java Runtime Environment (JRE) is required. I realized I'd avoided installing the dreaded Java bloat on either computer. However, I'd received no warning that it was necessary during installation, and the System Requirements page of the LibreOffice Website doesn't mention it either.

Clicking OK cleared the error message, only for startup to continue and the error to appear again. After 10 or so attempts clearing the error message, I managed to get to the new document launcher, from where I was able to start the suite's applications without a hitch. Starting each application subsequently was also error-free.

I might be wrong but it was only ever the Base database component of OpenOffice/LibreOffice that absolutely required Java to work, so I don't know why I was seeing this error. Sure enough, although Base started up fine, saving a database caused the same JRE error to appear, and there was no way around it other than to quit the program.

Upon starting each application you'll see the classic OpenOffice.org interface. Indeed, it's very hard to see anything new and there arguably aren't any major updates in this release. The list of new features seems to be of appeal only to programmers, or full of features that are not that useful. Many new features might be better categorized as bug fixes or refinements.


You can easily create title pages in Writer.

For example, Writer can now insert scalable vector graphics (SVG) images. You can edit SVG graphics in the Draw graphics editor too. SVG is liked by open source programmers because it's an open standard but it sees little use in the real world outside of Web browsers.

Another programmer friendly feature is that Writer can now "load and save ODF documents in flat XML to make external XSLT processing easier." I've no idea what that means. I suspect it's to do with exporting documents to archiving systems. Calc now supports up to one million rows, again arguably useful only to people that use spreadsheets for serious data wrangling.

Of the less-than-useful new features, Writer now imports Lotus Word Pro files, and has improved WordPerfect support. In other words, you're covered should you and your computer slip through a time warp to 1995. You can open Microsoft Works documents as well.

Of the kind of features companies like Microsoft would boast about, there's only a handful that stand out. There's a new dialog box for creating title pages in Writer, for example, and an improved thesaurus. Calc features "more familiar" key bindings, which means you can use your Excel keyboard shortcuts, and Calc can also utilize Excel A1 and R1C1 formula syntax. The presentations package, Impress, features a handful of new extensions, including a Presenter Console that makes it easier to manage presentations on a laptop connected to a projector. Across all programs, the print dialog box has been overhauled for ease of use.

But that's about it. It's very hard to find anything to write home about. Arguably the biggest additions to Microsoft Office in recent years have been OneNote, the fantastically useful note-taking application, and SharePoint Workspace, which allows collaborative working. Sadly, there's just nothing like either in LibreOffice 3.3. It's a release that would have been stunning in 2000, but is now slightly anachronistic and dull.

It's buggy too, in the way that OpenOffice.org always was. I managed to run into an issue straight away in Writer. Zooming out to two-page view should have invoked the horizontal scrollbar, but it didn't appear. This left me unable to navigate around single-page documents I subsequently created unless I adjusted the zoom settings so the page filled the screen. I couldn't find how to manually activate the horizontal scroll bar.

However, the other applications appeared stable, and in the limited time I had to look over the software, I was able to do common tasks without hindrance.


Impress features a new presenter's console add-on.

And this perhaps best characterizes the experience: LibreOffice is a reliable old jalopy. It has its quirks but it's reliable for getting basic and even some sophisticated things done. For those who understand its limitations, it's an utter bargain at zero dollars, just like OpenOffice.org was. However, those hoping that the new management at LibreOffice might inject some life into the project are in for a disappointment. There's no sign of that here. It's the same old OpenOffice.org, except with a handful of improvements and a new name.

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LibreOffice debuts


Programmers have released the first version of LibreOffice for Windows and Mac, the product of a rebellion against Oracle's open-source office suite called OpenOffice.org.

A group called the Document Foundation--unhappy with Oracle's control over OpenOffice after it was acquired along with Sun Microsystems--forked the software into the group's own version in September. LibreOffice 3.3 is the first stable release.

LibreOffice has won support from longtime open-source allies such as Red Hat, Novell, and Ubuntu. But it's got rivals aplenty: while the Document Foundation focuses on separating from its Oracle and Sun roots, the larger rival remains Microsoft Office and new challengers come in the form of cloud computing products such as Google Docs.

Now, the competition is on to see which variation will be most useful and popular.


LibreOffice accommodates various extensions. One shown here, bundled with LibreOffice, is for importing PDF files for editing.

As one might expect from a point release, the new features in LibreOffice 3.3 are modest in scope. Among them are the ability to import SVG graphics files, a console for those creating presentations, and a Microsoft Works import filter. And the software includes features set for the upcoming OpenOffice 3.3, such as a spreadsheet limit of a million rows and a print dialog box designed to be easier to use.

But it's when talks arises about changes under the covers in LibreOffice 3.3 that some of the Document Foundation's excitement about a fresh start becomes more apparent.

"Invisible differences are huge," said Italo Vignoli, a founding member of the Document Foundation. "The source code has been cleaned," he said, with comments tidied up and often translated from the original German into English and with unused remnants of old features stripped out.

"This activity, which has been possible thanks to the new contributors gathered by the project since the announcement in September (tens of them), is key to ensure a better foundation for future software developments," Vignoli said. "Differences will start to be more visible starting from LibreOffice 3.4 which will be available in mid-2011."

Twenty OpenOffice.org programmers moved their efforts to LibreOffice--about a third of them, Vignoli estimates. Since then, the "project has attracted around 100 developers," many tackling easy, minor changes to become familiar with the software. Now that development is under way, Vignoli expects the project to diverge increasingly from OpenOffice.org.

LibreOffice has the traditional informal support network common to open-source projects, but Vignoli hopes for more.


LibreOffice Calc is a spreadsheet program.

"We perfectly know that for corporate adoption, it will be necessary to provide something more structured and organized," Vignoli said. "In some markets, this is already available through third parties--especially in Europe, and in some geographies such as Germany, France and Italy. But there is room for improvement, and immediately after the release of LibreOffice 3.3 we will start working at building a solid ecosystem."

And he expects some commercial activity in this area to help make LibreOffice more self-sustaining financially.

"We are going to build a program for third parties to make the process of adding value around LibreOffice (migrations, development, and training) easier and better structured. The Document Foundation is going to provide the services for the ecosystem," he said. Particulars have yet to be settled upon, but "we might charge for providing high-level training (train the trainers) and to provide a certification infrastructure for third parties willing to be recognized by the project."

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