Finally there's an open source drop-in replacement for MS Office

There's a new player in the office suite space and it promises to play well with MS Office. Jack Wallen offers up his take on the new open source FreeOffice suite of tools.

Image: Jack Wallen

In the land of open source, there are a few tools available that serve as office suites. The King of that heap has been, for a long time, LibreOffice...with good reason. LibreOffice offers all the features you could ever want from an office suite, retains an easy-to-use interface, and plays well with the competition. I've used LibreOffice for years and cannot imagine using anything different.

Until now.

Sort of.

You may have heard of the company SoftMaker. They are the creators of SoftMaker Office, which runs on Windows, Linux, and Android. That same company has recently released a new product, FreeOffice, and it could shake up the competition very quickly.

Why another product?

One of the issues that has plagued LibreOffice for some time now is MS Office compatibility. Yes, it works very well with the basic features. But once you start getting into more complex documents (or MS Office password protected documents), LibreOffice can run into some issues. I've watched LibreOffice stumble on a number of occasions with track changes. If track changes is used for simple editing, it works great. However, once you start using track changes for formatting things start to go sideways. I've missed entire formatting changes, thanks to this very issue.

With FreeOffice you will finally experience going back and forth between MS Office documents and another suite (almost) issue free. That's a major win for anyone wanting an open source (or cross platform) alternative.

Freeoffice is available for Linux, Windows, and Android. You can download the installers for Windows and Linux on the FreeOffice downloads page. For Android, you will find FreeOffice on the Google Play Store, as individual pieces (FreeOffice TextMaker, FreeOffice PlanMaker, FreeOffice Presentations) or Office HD for tablets.

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The versions

FreeOffice is really nothing more than a free version of Softmaker Office. If you want to up your game with this suite, you'll have to make the move to SoftMaker Office. The differences between the two are minimal. With the $69.95 standard you get all the features of the free version, plus a license for three computers as well as a Softmaker redux of the Thunderbird email client that integrates with the suite. For $99.95 you get all the features of the free and standard editions, plus a number of additional dictionaries.

Regardless of the added features, what you'll want FreeOffice for is the compatibility it offers with MS Office. In fact, FreeOffice is the only option, on the Linux platform, that can open MS Office password-protected files. That's an important feature for a lot of business users. And outside of some seriously advanced features, FreeOffice does the best job of any office suite, not called MS Office, of opening and working with MS Office documents.

It's not perfect

When you hear that a software offers Feature X, you expect that feature to work. Every major office suite I've tried has made promises of MS Office compatibility. Some of those products have failed miserably, while others have, for the most part succeeded. FreeOffice is no exception to the latter. Although it does succeed to a higher degree than any other office suite, you will find (as you probably expect) certain advanced features simply are not supported. Of course, the majority of users aren't working with advanced features, so the masses will probably see zero issues when working between MS Office and FreeOffice.

But there's one glaring issue I find to be a bit odd. With FreeOffice you can open and save in the following formats:


Notice the lack of DOCX, XLSX, and PPTX formats?

With FreeOffice you can open (but not save as) the following formats:


Once you open the newer MS Office files, you will have to save them in the older format. Why I consider this odd is because LibreOffice offers the ability to both open and save in the new format. Why was this overlooked by FreeOffice? Most likely a licensing issue with Microsoft.

So why bother?

I have to start by saying this: Because MS Office is one of Microsoft's biggest cash cows, I don't believe we will ever see a 100% drop-in replacement...on any platform, by any company. But the truth is, with all the available options (Google Docs, LibreOffice, Apple Productivity Apps, etc), fewer and fewer people are depending on MS Office. But if you're looking for a single office suite that plays well with everyone, FreeOffice should be placed on your radar. It's not perfect and offers a slightly out-of-date interface (Figure A), but if you're in need of a free suite of tools that will allow you to work well with MS Office (as well as can be expected), FreeOffice is a great alternative.

Figure A

Figure A
Image: Jack Wallen
The FreeOffice TextMaker interface is efficient, if not a bit out dated.

Personally, I'll be sticking with the one-two punch of Google Docs and LibreOffice...but I have no need to work with MS Office (as my editor now works with LibreOffice as well). However, it's reassuring to know, should I have to open an MS Office password protected file (or a file that LibreOffice doesn't care for), I now have an option.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....