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LibreOffice: An Open Source Alternative to Microsoft Office

LibreOffice: An Open Source Alternative to Microsoft Office

The phrase "open source", as used in the title, can also be read as "free." That is correct - there is a fully functional suite of office software applications very similar to, and compatible with, Microsoft Office. Developers donate their time to maintain the LibreOffice suite of applications and keep them up to date.

LibreOffice will run on your Windows operating system and will open, edit, and create Microsoft data files including Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. It has been around in one form or another for years and is totally free to download. You do have the option to make a donation to the cause, but there is no requirement to do so.

A Very Brief LibreOffice History

In the early 1970s, Richard Stallman was a Harvard-educated software engineer working on artificial intelligence projects for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As software development migrated away from the university environment and into the private sector, jobs like Stallman's were gradually eliminated, including his in the early 1980s. Stallman was not pleased that private industry was making money writing computer programs and believed that software is meant to be free. And so began the Free Software Foundation in 1985. Developers from around the world joined Stallman's cause, creating free applications and updating and improving them over time.

Skip ahead to the year 2000. In October of that year, OpenOffice was released. Eventually, in January of 2011, LibreOffice, the successor to OpenOffice, was made available. Since then, LibreOffice has been available for free download by anyone who wants it and is continuously supported and kept up to date by a team of volunteer software developers spread around the world.

What is available in LibreOffice?

LibreOffice essentially has everything Microsoft Office has, including a word processor similar to Microsoft Word, a spreadsheet program similar to Excel, a presentation creation application similar to PowerPoint, and an application that provides the drawing functionality of Visio. There is also a database application (think Microsoft Access) along with applications for creating and embedding mathematical formulas and charts in documents, presentations, and spreadsheets.

What does LibreOffice look like and how well does it work?

The user interfaces for the applications similar to Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and Visio, named Calc, Writer, Impress, and Draw, respectively, are very similar to those of their Microsoft counterparts. There are user guides available for free download in PDF format for all the applications.

Users accustomed to Microsoft Office may find some of the tools in LibreOffice to be a bit clunky. For example, the text selection tool in Writer sometimes doesn't want to cooperate, and you may have to manually turn on some features like automatic spell checking, but these things are relatively minor irritations given the non-existent price tag. Overall, if you are a user of Microsoft Office, you should have very little trouble adjusting to LibreOffice. It works on your Microsoft, MacOS, and Linux operating systems.

Compatibility with Microsoft Office

LibreOffice can create, open, and edit Microsoft Office files. Using the Writer application as an example, you can create a new document and, when you save it, you have the option to save it as a .doc or .docx file so it can be opened and edited in Microsoft Word. You can also open and edit a document originally created in Word. You can do the same with Excel and PowerPoint files.

Occasionally, using special formatting or the Track Changes tool while creating or editing a document in Writer's native ODF file type will result in formatting errors when the document is saved as a Word file. For example, a specific format is required when listing sources in the bibliography of an academic research paper. LibreOffice users have reported that the formatting of these citations is not properly preserved when the files are saved as Word documents. Using Writer's Style tool to create a specific style for citations can resolve the issue.

Users also reported that using the Track Changes tool in a Writer ODF file can cause minor paragraph formatting errors when the document is saved as a Word file, but these should disappear when the changes are accepted in Word. Sometimes formatting issues are the result of files being repeatedly switched between the Word and Writer native file types, so it is best to keep a document in the ODF file format until all edits are completed in Writer, then save it as a Word file if necessary.

Is LibreOffice safe?

Arguments among experts go both ways regarding the security and safety of installing and using LibreOffice. The general consensus seems to be that nothing is 100% safe and secure, but there is an advantage associated with LibreOffice. The source code of Microsoft Office is not made available to those who use it, whereas the source code of LibreOffice can be viewed and edited if you are a developer with the right tools. This "open source" concept means that the large number of developers who keep it up to date would quickly discover any potentially malicious code embedded therein and eliminate the threat.

Give LibreOffice A Try

You can download and install LibreOffice by going to libreoffice.org and clicking the Download menu. If it turns out that you find it useful and want to do so, you can make a donation at the same site by clicking Donate. Again, contributions are totally optional and are used to support the LibreOffice worldwide community.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Richard Stallman's reasons for starting the free software movement decades ago, you can't beat the price of LibreOffice. And, after all, these developers are choosing to work for free on this project. In all likelihood, with their skills, they have paying gigs as well, and apply their considerable experience to LibreOffice purely for the satisfaction of making a contribution to the LibreOffice project.

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