Recently, I've had a number of readers ask me about the differences between the two foremost open-source office suites. To the end user, this is a very legitimate question. When you see each description, the variances are minimal. Let's take a look:
- LibreOffice: LibreOffice is a free and open-source office suite, developed by The Document Foundation.
- OpenOffice: Apache OpenOffice (AOO) is an open-source office productivity software suite. It descends from OpenOffice.org and IBM Lotus Symphony, and it's a close cousin of LibreOffice.
First, we must get the names out of the way. The OpenOffice of which I now speak is officially Apache OpenOffice. This was the same software that was once owned by Oracle and then relinquished to Apache. All of these software titles (OpenOffice.org, Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice, NeoOffice, and more) all stem from the original StarOffice (which was actually a proprietary office suite).
Both tools (LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice) are free, cross-platform office suites that do an outstanding job of getting your work done. But... why would you choose one over the other? I don't want to stand and take sides for this argument. What I do want is to lay out what sets each tool apart, so you can decide which office suite best fits your needs. I also want it to be known that, in my opinion, both tools are outstanding replacements for the costlier proprietary solutions that are available. Both include everything you need to get your productivity done — word processor, spreadsheets, database, formulas, and drawing tools.
Now, let's get on with the differences.
To make this perfectly clear, Apache OpenOffice is behind LibreOffice in release. At the moment, Apache OpenOffice is at release 4.1.1 and LibreOffice is at release 4.3.1. LibreOffice makes available the latest iteration much more rapidly and frequently than Apache OpenOffice. Is that good or bad? On one hand, it means that you're getting fixes and new features faster. On the other, it could more readily introduce bugs (bug that are, in turn, patched quickly). The LibreOffice releases tend to bring new features and changes at tiny increments, whereas Apache OpenOffice updates (due to the infrequency of releases) tend to be more dramatic.
This is where it gets both interesting and confusing. The average user might not see too many differences between these open-source office suites. At most, if you looked at them side-by-side, you'd see the Apache OpenOffice sidebar is on by default (Figure A), where LibreOffice requires you to enable this feature (via View | Sidebar). What is the sidebar? I'm glad you asked. The Apache OpenOffice sidebar is based on the Symphony (a now defunct office suite by IBM) Properties Panel. This sidebar gives you instant access to all document properties. With it, you can quickly change formatting on character, paragraph, and page.
The Apache OpenOffice sidebar running on Peach OSI.
You can enable/disable the sidebar in both LibreOffice and Apache OpenOffice. Only in Apache OpenOffice is the sidebar enabled by default.
There's a nifty Android remote control for presentations (check out my post "Control your LibreOffice presentations from your Android smartphone") that appears in LibreOffice but not Apache OpenOffice. LibreOffice also includes an embedding font feature that you won't find in Apache OpenOffice either. Outside of that, you're looking at a fairly consistent feature set across the board.
There is, however, one big difference — one that could possibly have a huge impact on future releases. Because of the licensing issues, major advancements or improvements to Apache OpenOffice can be incorporated into LibreOffice, but major advancements or improvements to LibreOffice cannot be incorporated into OpenOffice.
This isn't a huge advantage at the moment, but if LibreOffice comes up with a game-changing feature, Apache OpenOffice will not enjoy said feature.
Another major difference is installation. This difference tends to only affect the Linux side of things. Most distributions ship with LibreOffice pre-installed. If not, it can easily be found in the default repositories (so installation is only a matter of searching for LibreOffice in the software installer — such as the Ubuntu Software Center — and installing). Apache OpenOffice, on the other hand, does not enjoy this same status. Instead, you must download the installer for your platform and install it manually. Generally speaking, this isn't all that difficult. But for users who just want to install an operating system and start working, LibreOffice has the advantage.
Beyond these differences, you're looking at picking nits so tiny that very few would ever spot them. So, which tool should you use? Personally, I opt for LibreOffice. I prefer the faster releases, and the fact that it's just there when I install Ubuntu Linux.
What about you? Which of the open-source office suites do you prefer and why? Share your opinion in the discussion thread below.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.