For many people Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office, which I’ll call collectively FOs (Free Offices suites) for short, are nothing but “free, as in free beer” substitutes of Microsoft Office for basic to intermediate needs. Many users in this category may run the FOs for years without ever discovering some of their features, that is, without realizing the full power and flexibility of these tools.

Sure, even most beginners know that both the FOs are multi-platform, regularly updated, and can export documents to PDF without additional plugins (always a good “selling” point, in my experience), but that’s pretty much it. I’m quite confident that only a part of these people already know all the features listed below, which may be lifesavers for their friends if not for themselves. It is also likely that some advanced users of the Free Office suites are so familiar with the same features that they may even forget to mention them whenever they advocate Free Software.

I hope this post will give as many people as possible even more reasons to try and/or promote the FOs. In the same spirit, stay tuned for more posts in the next weeks, in which I will explain in detail how to use some of the tools listed below. In the meantime, you are very welcome to add your favourite “least known feature” of AOO and LO in the comments, together with requests on how to perform other obscure tasks with these programs!

#1 Support for MANY file formats

Both Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office can handle lots of different formats. They cannot read and write all of them without losses, of course (nor can any other single application, for that matter). I know that very well myself, having said it for SVG graphics, in this very column and being still unable to open FrameMaker files on Linux. There are many other similar limits. Still, between “veteran” filters and optional or new ones, you can be reasonably sure to handle, at least partially, almost all files you may come across, including those from Visio, Corel Draw, and Microsoft Publisher. Two different extensions, both called Writer2Latex (here and here), even provide Writer export filters for LaTeX and BibTeX.

#2 The Math formulas editors and extensions

As you can see in Figure A, a user-friendly formula editor is included in both Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office. Yes, its flexibility and aesthetics results cannot match those of LaTex, but who cares when the TexMaths extension lets you insert editable LaTeX equations in your files?

Figure A

#3 Variables

Variables can save you a lot of effort, if you take the time to create your own in the right templates. Select Insert |Fields | Other to open the panel in Figure B and then follow the instructions here for AOO and here for LO.

Figure B

#4 Writer XForms mode

XForms is an open standard by the World Wide Web Consortium. It describes how to create in HTML, XHTML or other languages, user interfaces for entry and basic processing of many data.

In practice, an XForm is a file that can pre-fill itself with default data downloaded from a Web server and then let each of its users enter their data, in order to submit the result to a local or remote database. Both AOO and LO let you create XForms (just select File/New/XML Form Document and you’ll get the form controls of Figure C) that your partners can fill and file straight from their office suites. I’ll explain how to do this in detail in another post.

Figure C

#5 The Writer Sort Tool

When you work in a spreadsheet you can sort columns and rows according to several criteria. Did you know that you can do the same even in text documents with Writer (Tools | Sort) inside tables or even just plain paragraphs, just as I did in Figure D:

#6 Hybrid PDFs

Office documents are (must be) editable by definition. Many users, however, want to distribute PDF versions of their documents, to be sure they’ll look the same everywhere (which cannot be always true, but that’s another matter). This is fine if all the recipients must do is look at the files, but not if they also have to edit them. The “Embed OpenDocument file” option in the Export as PDF panel (see Figure E) is made to order to solve this problem. Check it, and you’ll create a PDF file from which Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice can extract a copy of the original, editable file.

Figure E

#7 Automatic document analysis and processing

Let’s finish (for now) by going back to file formats: both Apache OpenOffice and Libre Office do the right thing here (as do KOffice and Calligra!), in the sense that they use the OpenDocument standard as their default file format. This is great, because that is a format that makes it very easy to modify or analyze how many documents you want with very simple scripts. To see what I mean, read any of these posts of mine:

OpenOffice or Libre Office? You choose
Some of the features described here may not work exactly in the same way in both suites. They may even not be available in the specific versions you currently run, or in the ones already packaged for your current Linux distribution. Such differences are beyond the scope of these posts. It is also not my intention to promote one or the other suite here: my only purpose is to help you evaluate all the possibilities that these programs offer, so that you can figure out which one suits your needs best. Now, did I miss some other important feature? Please let us know!