Free competitor to Microsoft Office

Free competitor to Microsoft Office

With a very few exceptions, I have used Microsoft Word as my word processor when writing these columns. Tonight I am using LibreOffice Writer, a component of the newly released LibreOffice version, a totally free and open source competitor of Microsoft Office. 

The Writer desktop looks very similar to the desktop used in Word, and all of the commands and shortcuts that I have been using with Word appear to work equally well with Writer. Anyone minimally familiar with Word should be able to immediately use Writer, as it has “zero learning curve.” What is especially interesting about this entire LibreOffice suite is not just its price (totally free), but the fact that it can read and write almost all of the office files used around the world, including word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation, desktop publishing, and other types of office documents. LibreOffice also includes an “Export to PDF” feature on the File button on the menu bar, which can create perfect PDF files without the necessity of third-party PDF writing utilities.

LibreOffice ( is aptly named “because it is a free (libre) office utility, and is an open source, comprehensive office suite that contains all of the components found in its expensive commercial competitors. For those who like to use office templates, add-ons, plug-ins, and other enhancements, the massive international community of LibreOffice users has created an extensive library of free supplements for the suite. Many of the founders of LibreOffice were on the staff of its older cousin, OpenOffice, when OpenOffice lost the majority of its support funding due to a change in ownership. LibreOffice contains updates, enhancements and features not found in its older open source cousin. The original OpenOffice grew out of a commercial dispute between Microsoft and Sun Microsystems, which resulted in Sun purchasing a German office suite, Star Office, and giving it away for free as OpenOffice in direct competition to the expensive Microsoft Office. IBM licensed OpenOffice and released it under the banner Lotus Symphony. When Oracle took over Sun, there were some disagreements over the future of OpenOffice and its employees, resulting in many of the employees leaving and using the OpenOffice source code (open source, which means not copyrighted), to create an updated and more competitive LibreOffice.

LibreOffice 4 was a 183mb download (Windows version) that installed quickly and without any annoying options to install toolbars, search engines and other irritants; it was a totally clean install process. An optional 7.9mb “HelpPack” (Windows version) provides integral, context sensitive help when needed. The Windows version of LibreOffice 4 will run under Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7 or Windows 8, and has minimal hardware requirements (256 mb RAM, 1.5 gb hard drive space, and 1024x768 minimum recommended screen resolution). Recent versions of Java may be required to utilize all of the features in Base, the LibreOffice database program. The Mac version of LibreOffice requires MacOSX 10.4 (Tiger) or higher, 512 mb RAM, 800 mb available hard disk space and a 1024x768 graphic display with 256 colors (higher resolution recommended). For Mac computers, Java may also be necessary to utilize the Base database program. Some special steps might be necessary to install LibreOffice on Macs running MacOS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion), and these steps are shown on the “system requirements” page at LibreOffice is also available for computers running almost all iterations of Linux including Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, Mandriva, Suse, and others.

Sometimes, it is convenient or necessary for a user to carry his own portable software and files on a USB flash drive, or similar device. LibreOffice has a fully functional portable version (100 mb download) that includes a word processor (Writer), spreadsheet (Calc), presentation tool (Impress, a PowerPoint competitor), drawing package (Drawing) and database (Base). Each of these is “packaged” to run in the standardized “PortableApps” utility, or run by itself from a USB flash drive, in the cloud, or from a local drive. As a fully functional portable office utility, users can take all documents along with everything they need to work with them wherever they goes. As are all of the other forms of LibreOffice, this portable version is free ( I downloaded the portable version, installed it to a flash drive, and it worked flawlessly.

As I am typing this right now on Writer, the Microsoft Word competitor, I have not encountered any issues, as the look and feel of LibreOffice Writer are almost identical to Microsoft Word. One difference between LibreOffice 4 and Microsoft Office 2010 is the menu ribbon used in Office 2007 and 2010 is absent, while LibreOffice 4 by default uses the more traditional menu bar as used in earlier versions of Office such as Office 2003. LibreOffice surveyed its users and found an almost perfect 50/50 split between those who preferred the classic menus to the newer Office 2010 ribbon menu. For those who prefer the more modern looking Office 2010 ribbon, several free add-ons are available that mimic the ribbon style.

I use Microsoft PowerPoint on a daily basis in my classes and for my external presentations; using the PC installed version of LibreOffice, I opened several of my PowerPoint presentations, created on either PowerPoint 2003 or PowerPoint 2010, with LibreOffice 4 Impress. Both PPT and PPTX PowerPoints opened and played perfectly with Impress, including all of the slide transitions and animations. Since I carry backup copies of my PowerPoints on my USB flash drive when I do external presentations, the portable version of Impress could easily be utilized to play the slide show if the provided computer either has an older version of Office or no Office at all. In terms of desktop appearance, the Impress window looked exactly like PowerPoint 2003 but had all of the features of PowerPoint 2010.

I use Office Excel for several types of record keeping, both at home and at work. To perform a quick test of compatibility between the LibreOffice Calc with files created with Excel 2010 (.xlsx) and Excel 2003 (.xls), I loaded Calc and opened a variety of Excel files. With Calc, all of the Excel files opened, maintaining all colors, fonts, graphics, formulas, spacing and other characteristics of the original Excel files. As do all of the other LibreOffice components, spreadsheet files created in the dozens of spreadsheet formats used around the world, including all of the Microsoft formats, can be opened in Calc.

Base is the LibreOffice database utility, which, like all of the other LibreOffice components, can read and write other database-formatted files. Base integrates seamlessly with the other LibreOffice components, and can also be used as a free-standing database utility. Linked tables and queries from MySQL, PostgreSQL and Microsoft Access can be imported, or users can design their own in Base. Support is built in or easily addable for a wide range of other database products, including HSQL, MySQL, Adabas D, Microsoft Access and PostgreSQL.

Draw and Math are two LibreOffice utilities that add enhanced capabilities over Microsoft Office. Draw allows the user to create diagrams and sketches ranging from simple images to dynamic 3D illustrations with special effects. Math is an equation editor that lets users lay out and display mathematical, chemical, electrical or scientific equations quickly and in standard written notation. Users of Microsoft Publisher and Visio can easily import documents created with those products into LibreOffice using free import filters. An import filter for LibreOffice Draw opens Microsoft Office Publisher files, while another Draw import filter can open all Visio files ranging from the original 1992 Visio 1.0 format to the latest Visio 2013 files.

For anyone, from students at all levels to businesses and other agencies or enterprises, LibreOffice 4 is the way to go for those who want all of the features and usability of the expensive Microsoft Office suite without the expense, as LibreOffice explicitly means “Free Office.”


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