On September 28, 2010, LibreOffice was announced as a fork of the OpenOffice.org office suite. In the weeks since then, there have been promises of innovation and change from LibreOffice, and an attempt at dignified silence from OpenOffice.org.
However, it was only last week that the two rivals released their 3.3 versions, and users had the chance to see whether the differences in the culture of the projects made any difference in the code.
Unfortunately, tracking the differences is not easy. For one thing, while the improvements over the previous common release 3.2 are numerous, few are major.
However, a point-by-point comparison shows that while the new releases have numerous improvements over version 3.2 of the code, the advantage seems to lie with LibreOffice. So far as I can see, OpenOffice.org 3.3 contains no new features that LibreOffice 3.3 lacks while, by contrast, LibreOffice.org 3.3 has a number of features that OpenOffice.org 3.3 does not have, including improved language support, new import filters, and several changes that allow for more flexibility for spreadsheet users.
Both new releases include some redesigned interfaces -- an improvement that has been needed for many releases. Perhaps the most noticeable is the printing dialog. After relying for years on sub-windows and pull-down lists, the printing dialog is now tabbed, with enough room on the General tab to display at least half a dozen printers without the need of opening the list or scrolling. The dialog also benefits from a single page preview that, while too small to be legible, is enough to see the general design and, with any luck, to identify each page without needing to close the dialog and returning to the document.
In much the same way, the thesaurus dialog window has been simplified, with a longer list of synonyms visible immediately. In addition, in the Calc spreadsheet, the dialog for creating datapilots (Calc's equivalent of MS Excel's Pivot Tables) has been enhanced with a sub-dialog for sorting.
Other general improvements are visible as well. Files can now be password-protected to prevent them from being opened, or to keep them visible but uneditable. Under File -> Properties, an unlimited number of custom properties can now be defined, and each property can now include a date or duration. Standard fonts such as Times and Helvetica are now embedded automatically in all PDF files generated from the two office suites, and they both add a Narrow width to the Liberation font family that is the metrical equivalent of Arial Narrow.
Each of the separate applications has its own enhancements. Writer finally has more options for the Change Case tool, including sentence case, and the capitalization of every word. In the Impress presentation application, the number of slide layouts in the task pane has been reduced from twenty-three to twelve by adding a button for choosing the type of object to insert on the slide itself -- an innovation that makes all the layouts visible at once, and makes selecting one less complicated.
However, the Calc spreadsheet is the application that benefits the most from additions in 3.3. It now supports a million rows (assuming of course, that anyone would be rash enough to use a spreadsheet of that size instead of migrating to a database before reaching one percent of that total). The display of decimals is no longer confined to two digits, a default that has caused considerable confusion ever since OpenOffice.org was first released.
The identification of sheets has been made easier by the addition of colored tabs, and the Chart sub-system now supports the addition of complex drawing objects. These new features keep Calc competitive in its arms race with MS Excel, and introduces some long-needed modernization.
Features Unique to LibreOffice
For a point release, OpenOffice.org 3.3 has a respectable list of features. However, despite the fact that LibreOffice.org has only been in existence a few months, its 3.3 release includes many more features than OpenOffice.org's.
In the last few months, many of those working on locales in OpenOffice.org have shifted their work to LibreOffice. Under these circumstances, it is unsurprising that LibreOffice has updated all its languages, and revised the local data for twenty, and updated the dictionaries for another dozen.
Import filters for files from other word processors are also a major feature in LibreOffice. After years of OpenOffice.org users requesting support for MS Works formats, LibreOffice finally provides it. In addition, LibreOffice users can now import Word Pro files, and use an improved WordPerfect import filter. And while OpenOffice.org can only import files from Microsoft Office 2007 and 2010, LibreOffice can also save to them -- a feature that is controversial among free software supporters, but likely to prove convenient for casual users.
Other LibreOffice features offer more flexibility to users of Calc. Under Tools -> Options -> LibreOffice Calc, uses can now choose to use the old familiar OpenOffice.org keybindings, or LibreOffice's enhanced set. For those who want greater compatibility with MS Excel, the options also include a new Formula dialog, where they can choose the default syntax for formulas, choosing from the default OpenOffice.org ones or two Excel-compatible alternatives, as well as the separators between elements within formulas.
Other enhancements in LibreOffice include a new and, from the viewpoint of a user of page styles, unnecessary dialog for creating a title page, the bundling of several extensions such as the Presenter Console as part of the standard installation, a couple of additional narrow fonts, and an option for an experimental mode in which you can preview features still in development (not that there appear to be any yet).
Comparing the two releases, you have to conclude that, while LibreOffice developers were not too proud to borrow OpenOffice.org code, OpenOffice.org developers saw no reason to do likewise in return.
That seems short-sighted, because while even LibreOffice's new version is not a major release, it is far more substantial than OpenOffice.org's. With more attention to language support, compatibility, and future developments, the LibreOffice code supports the contention that its developers and organizers have been making for the past few months: LibreOffice definitely seems to be listening to users and considering their needs more closely than OpenOffice.org.
This situation will probably not last. To stay competitive, OpenOffice.org will probably be forced to borrow code from LibreOffice sooner or later. But, at least until the next release, if you want the most advanced free software office suites, then you want to download LibreOffice -- not OpenOffice.org.