Five steps on the path to Microsoft Office alternative LibreOffice

Leaving home can be scary, but the journey from Microsoft Office to LibreOffice isn't difficult if you have a road map for transitioning users.

Your organization may decide to try LibreOffice if it would like to dispense with the licensing hassles, periodic

updates and pay-per-revision cycles of mainstream commercial software. And if it does: Congratulations, you're the new LibreOffice desktop application point person.

You might have heard that LibreOffice works well, is easy to install and provides similar functionality to Microsoft Office. However, be aware that you could run into compatibility problems, face common open source software support challenges, and need to convince both IT staffers and users who may be resistant to change. How do you ease on down the LibreOffice road and help users and support staffers reach their productivity suite goals?

Arriving in a new world

LibreOffice is available for Windows, Linux or Mac OS machines. Installation on Windows is straightforward. Go to LibreOffice.org, and click the Download tab to download "main.installer" to your machine. As of this writing, LibreOffice is at Version 4.1.2.3 and is a little over 200 MB in size.

Once the download is complete, open the file to install. Windows 8 will ask if you want to install the file. Answer yes. After the installation completes, you should have the program available in Search.

Even if you are a total newbie to LibreOffice, start using it right away. Learn everything you can about Writer, Calc, Impress and possibly Base. The same goes for your roll-out team. Have your teammates start using the office suite as soon as possible.

Although LibreOffice is remarkably similar to Microsoft Office, your credibility will suffer if you haven't played with the program before interacting with users. Load it on your laptop and open a spreadsheet, Word document or PowerPoint slide stack. Screens and functionality should look familiar. As a matter of fact, some desktop experts might even wonder why people haven't been using LibreOffice all along.

Read the signs, and get help

LibreOffice has extensive help support, and built-in help is available for download on the same page as the main installer.

The "get help" tab on LibreOffice's main page has lots of resources, including documentation, FAQs and mailing lists. Make sure to browse the FAQ page because it spells out how and who can use LibreOffice and for what purposes.

Third-party support is available, too. The Document Foundation, which is the parent of LibreOffice, maintains a list of certified support partners that work on development, bug fixes and feature enhancements for the office suite.

Find new friends

It's a good idea to partner up with Linux users. Most of them are likely familiar with LibreOffice, since it's the most widely used office productivity suite on that platform. The application itself is virtually identical in Windows, Linux and Mac editions, so Linux users in your organization can help cross-train co-workers no matter what operating system they use.

You'll also find that Linux-oriented colleagues tend to be enthusiastic about promoting open source software, and most take pride in helping their users.

The power of choice

One possible approach is to put LibreOffice on user's machines and then let them try out the Microsoft Office alternative at their leisure. Some people will take to it right away, and some won't touch it.

That's all right, because the LibreOffice faithful will be fairly comfortable after a few weeks, and they can help their colleagues learn the programs.

You may or may not choose to offer in-house training. If you have a small shop of go-getters, simply introducing LibreOffice might be enough. If you are a large organization, the normal corporate planning and project roll-out process is in order.

There will be challenges

Sure, LibreOffice isn't an exact copy of Microsoft Office, so use the 80/20 rule and focus on refining the aspects that your users really need. IT admins considering LibreOffice as a replacement for Microsoft Office should, however, note a few potential incompatibilities.

First, macros, pivot tables and custom programming in Excel may not be drop-in solutions when moving to LibreOffice Calc. Although Calc does offer its own versions of these features, rewriting and converting your current spreadsheets could take time and effort.

Second, complicated formatting in Word might look a little off when opening the documents in LibreOffice Writer. Users may have to juggle tabs, margins and fonts to get their documents exactly right. That could also lead to formatting complaints when sending documents to other organizations. It's a good idea to prototype and test required features. Spot checks of document compatibility, with select extreme formatting test cases, might initially rule out use of LibreOffice.

Lastly, animations and transitions in Impress, the LibreOffice PowerPoint look-alike, might be problematic. I'm not a fan of fancy animations in my own presentations, and most companies I've worked with have modest needs in these areas. However, a decent testing and prototyping process should help you find the kinks.

If your work processes are so complicated that you are locked into certain apps or vendors, maybe it's time to tinker with your business model by considering Microsoft Office alternatives. Could you simplify your process, so you don't have to have some arcane set of calculations that only one or two people know how to perform? That's a risk in itself.

Remember that using office productivity software is a given these days. Rarely do interviewers ask if candidates know how to use Word or Excel. It's just assumed that they can open a document and perform day-to-day tasks with Microsoft Office. You could make the same assumption for LibreOffice. It's close enough to Office that users shouldn't be too intimidated.

If you save files in the native LibreOffice.odt format, make sure that correspondents are aware of conversions to Microsoft Word documents.

The same goes for PowerPoint-type slides. If you don't use sophisticated animations or transitions and don't need to share complex presentations, you should be fine with Microsoft Office alternatives. Most people are able to view documents or slides that I've saved in Office formats.

Just be aware of what functionality your users will need most of the time and where they might need training. In addition, assess what tasks are one-off and where more involved file conversions might be needed.

The journey from commercial office productivity software to LibreOffice shouldn't be scary. Although there will be a slight learning curve, it shouldn't be a major challenge for most organizations. Like any move, it just takes a little time to become comfortable in a new home.

About the author:
Rob Reilly is an independent consultant, writer, and speaker serving clients in the private sector, small business and tech media. His analytical and "how-to" articles cover Linux and open source, the Internet of Things, DIY and the Maker Movement and technology career development. He can be reached at robreilly@earthlink.net.

This was first published in December 2013

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