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Why to try LibreOffice vs. OpenOffice free office suites

After comparing Office 2013 and Office 365, our expert examines how free productivity suites OpenOffice and LibreOffice stack up.

Desktop users and administrators have a variety of options for productivity suites. Microsoft Office might still be the dominant software package, but there are different versions, and open source upstarts have their own appeal. We've already looked at how Office 2013 compares with Office 365, as well as Office 2013 versus open source suites. Here are a few more matchups, including LibreOffice vs. OpenOffice.

Open source vs. Office 365

In some ways, comparing the free suites to Office 365 is similar to comparing them to Office 2013, except that Office 365 provides many more services and supports mobility. For many organizations, an important factor is that Office 365 was designed to be compatible with Office 2013, sharing the same core components and offering the same desktop features.

Organizations thinking about switching to an open source office suite should take into account their repositories of Office documents. Although LibreOffice and OpenOffice do a good job of importing legacy docs, it's still quite common to run into formatting and text problems when switching between products. For simpler documents, this usually isn't too big a deal, but for more complex ones, you could run into a variety of problems or, at the very least, a lot of little annoyances.

If you're planning to make a one-time migration, the impact can at least be limited, but if you're considering a gradual transition, with a lot of switching between platforms, there could be a fair amount of growing pains.

In most cases, the biggest concern is going to be around word processing. Fortunately, Office 2013, Office 365, OpenOffice and LibreOffice all support the OpenDocument (.odt) standard, which can make it easier to pass documents from one application to another.

Even so, a transition from on-premises Office to Office 365 is likely to go much smoother than to LibreOffice or OpenOffice, especially if you're trying to run the old and the new together for any length of time. That said, the Office 365 price tag might make the prospects of a little inconvenience pale by comparison.

LibreOffice vs. OpenOffice

An organization that decides to take the open source route will likely be deciding between OpenOffice and LibreOffice. Although they share common roots and have a lot to offer, they've still gone their separate ways, and that separation is starting to show.

At the feature level, the two products remain much the same. LibreOffice looks a bit more polished, offering little extras such as a more robust status bar at the bottom of the application screen. More important, however, are two features that LibreOffice supports that are not available in OpenOffice. And those differences could be incentive enough for many organizations to join the LibreOffice camp.

The first is embedded fonts. By being able to embed fonts into their documents, users can ensure that others can view the information the way it was meant to be viewed, regardless of the systems on which they're working. Without embedded fonts, formatting can become quite skewed depending on the contents.

The second important feature is support for the Office Open XML Text (.docx) format, the current de facto standard for Office 365 and Office 2013 Word documents. OpenOffice can read .docx files, but not save to that format. LibreOffice can do both, which can make life much easier in transitioning from one environment to another or in trying to maintain the two environments indefinitely.

Part of the challenge for OpenOffice is in how the licensing works for the two products. OpenOffice follows Apache licensing, and LibreOffice adheres to the Mozilla Public License. This basically means that LibreOffice can incorporate OpenOffice code, but not the other way around. As a result, any slick new features added to OpenOffice will likely make their way into LibreOffice, but OpenOffice can derive none of the benefits of LibreOffice innovation.

LibreOffice also has a more robust development community behind it and a more aggressive release cycle. OpenOffice tends to follow a more steady and conservative path. Although this could mean that LibreOffice is more prone to bugs in their releases, the product is also more likely to provide innovative features. Even so, they're both very stable products that offer many benefits, and each one is well worth a test drive.

Choosing an office suite

Switching to a different office suite is a big deal for any organization. Decision-makers must understand not only cost considerations, but also the potential effect on productivity. If a company is already supporting an Office environment, with an Exchange server and the necessary infrastructure, Office 2013 might turn out cheaper in the long run than Office 365.

On the other hand, a small business just starting out might benefit from the low upfront costs and maintenance that comes with Office 365 and all the services it provides.

Organizations serious about saving money should at least consider a free open source office suite. Users can download them for free and perform their own LibreOffice vs. OpenOffice tests. IT can do the same to better understand how each product can be implemented within the corporate environment. The products might not be as complete as Microsoft's counterparts, but the thousands of dollars that can be saved in licensing and subscription fees is certainly nothing to scoff at.

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