Two free, full-blown alternatives to MS Office

Fred Langa

As Microsoft’s Office has grown in size and complexity, more than a few users have wondered whether there’s a viable alternative — especially when it comes time to pay for an upgrade or new copy.

There are very few alternatives. Two — Open Office and LibreOffice — provide the core functionality of classic versions of Microsoft Office and are completely free!

Open Office and LibreOffice are nearly identical productivity suites that, unlike Office 2013, live and work entirely on your PC’s hard drive — there’s no prodding you toward cloud storage or app rental. Both suites use traditional toolbars (no Ribbon interface) and come with six business apps: word processor, spreadsheet, presentation creator, drawing/desktop-publishing tool, database manager, and mathematics tool. Did I mention they’re free?

Office’s long, long road to Version 2013

To understand the context for Microsoft Office alternatives, it helps to look at Office itself. The newly released Office 2013 — and Office 365, its by-subscription counterpart — is actually the 15th major iteration of Microsoft’s flagship productivity suite. As you might imagine, the current version bears almost no resemblance to the original.

That first Office version debuted in 1989 and included just three tools: Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Over the next decade, Microsoft pumped out a new version of Office roughly every year— and each revision piled on new functions and features. Office was in nearly constant flux.

Many of these new additions were keepers. For example, an email client and a database manager have remained part of every Office version (though not in every edition of every version) since they first appeared. But there were also misfires, some of them spectacular. Who remembers Vizact and the Microsoft Binder — or the hugely disliked and maligned Clippy, the animated paper-clip Office Assistant?

In part, market trends — new technologies and new ways of working — drove the flood of good and bad Office features and functions. But the constant changes also made Office a cash cow, as the new features gave users a compelling reason to abandon their still-working older versions of the suite and buy the next new thing.

2003 — a watershed moment in Office’s evolution

Office 2003 (the 12th major iteration) offered literally tens of thousands of functions across its core components. It had just about everything most users could possibly want in an office suite. Figure 1 shows Word’s now-classic interface.

MS Word 2003

Figure 1. Office 2003 (Word shown) became an instant classic — a complete suite whose familiar toolbar interface gave easy access to its many features.

Office 2003’s success was a boon for Microsoft — but also a problem. If the suite exceeded most users’ expectations, how was Microsoft going to get them to buy the next version?

Dropping support for older Office versions wasn’t going to work; to its credit, Microsoft’s official Support lifecycle (more info) is 10 years for most software versions.

Continuing to pile on ever more features invoked the law of diminishing returns. Studies indicated that most users used only about 10 percent of Office 2003’s features. Microsoft’s own studies (MSDN blog) showed that just five functions — Paste, Save, Copy, Undo, and Bold — accounted for “around 32 percent of the total command use in Word 2003.”

Practically speaking, most users would never find (much less use) new features in the next Office version.

The answer, it seems, was to give Office a new UI. Office 2007 introduced the “Office Fluent user interface” (MS FAQ), aka the Ribbon. These tab-organized and changeable command sets — infamous to some — replaced the familiar toolbar (see Figure 2) of previous Office versions.

Word 2007

Figure 2. Word 2007's new Ribbon toolbar with context-sensitive tabs

Fully committing itself to the Ribbon UI, Microsoft enhanced it in Office 2010 and extended it to a few Windows 8 apps, such as File Explorer and Paint.

The Ribbon wasn’t the only change in Office, of course. Office 2013, for example, shifts the default file Save location from the user’s hard drive to Microsoft’s SkyDrive cloud-storage service. Office 2013 also introduces a yearly-subscription variant — Office 365. (Originally focused at small-business users, Office 365 is now heavily targeted at home-PC users.)

Three excellent articles by Woody Leonhard give you the particulars on Office 2013 and Office 365.

  • “Office 365 offers value, but it’s not Office” (April 28, 2011, Top Story)
  • “Software SmackDown: Office 2013 vs. Office 365” (Feb. 13 Woody’s Windows)
  • “Surviving your first hour with Office 2013” (March 7 Top Story)

The other side of the 2003 watershed

Not everyone is a fan of the Ribbon interface and the other Office changes — to put it mildly. I’ve never heard anyone — not a single person — say, “Wow, that new interface makes me want to spend several hundred dollars on the new version of Office!” or “I’m tired of instantly accessing my files on my hard drive; I’d prefer to get them only when I have Web access!” or even “I’d love to spend $100 a year, forever, to rent my software!” (To be fair, that $100 per year is for up to five PCs in the same home.)

Seeing an opportunity, several companies began offering office suites and productivity products that retain — and even improve on — the strengths and popularity of Office 2003. The two best known are LibreOffice and Open Office. Both are free, open-source, suites; they’re also very similar because they share common roots: a well-regarded, commercial office suite (and competitor to Microsoft Office) called StarOffice.

The history of LibreOffice and Open Office is convoluted, but here it is in a nutshell:

Sun Microsystems acquired StarOffice in 1999. The next year, the company gave the suite a new name — Open Office — and publicly released its source code. Open Office became the first, free, open-source, Microsoft Office work-alike. Sun continued to develop Open Office for the next few years.

In 2009, Oracle Corporation acquired Sun. Unfortunately, Oracle didn’t seem to know what to do with Open Office; shortly after the acquisition, a group of Open Office developers defected and created an independent fork (version) of the Open Office source code. They called this variant LibreOffice.

In 2011, Oracle decided the best thing for Open Office was to turn it over to the open-source Apache Software Foundation. Although nearly everyone still refers to the software simply as “Open Office,” its formal name is now Apache Open Office.

Which brings us to today.

Close productivity-suite cousins remain close

As mentioned earlier, LibreOffice and Open Office still share many similarities. Both are free; both use toolbar icons that will be familiar to Office 2003 users; and both install, run, and save files on the local hard drive. The two suites run on all current Windows versions plus operating systems where MS Office doesn’t: Mac, Linux, Unix, and other platforms. Best of all, both suites score well in independent reviews. For example, CNET gives LibreOffice and Open Office 5/5 stars.

LibreOffice and Open Office share the same six application modules:

  • Writer: a word processor analogous to Microsoft Word
  • Calc: an Excel equivalent
  • Impress: a presentation creator similar to PowerPoint
  • Draw: a vector-drawing tool; somewhat akin to Visio but with desktop-publishing features
  • Math: a mathematics tool, similar to Microsoft Equation Editor
  • Base: a database manager — a substitute for Access

Neither LibreOffice nor Open Office includes a built-in email client or calendaring app, but there are plenty of free, open-source tools for those functions, as any Web search will show you. Microsoft’s OneNote users can either purchase it separately or switch to the popular, cross-platform Evernote (site).

Although the two suites are similar, LibreOffice is a bit more evolved, mostly because Open Office’s development slowed while it was owned by Oracle and its future was unclear. As a result, LibreOffice is now at version while Open Office is at version 3.4.1.

The difference in development momentum shows up in various ways. For example, LibreOffice now supports more file formats than Open Office does — an important point I’ll come back to in more detail in a moment. LibreOffice also supports 113 different languages to Open Office’s 25. One indirect indication of how these suites have diverged: Most Linux distributions now ship with LibreOffice.

You’ll find some inconsistencies in the two suites’ toolbar layouts. But the differences are mostly thailand cosmetic — some tool icons are in slightly different places or have a slightly different look. Figures 3 and 4 show the main toolbars for the Writer app in LibreOffice and Open Office, respectively.

LibreOffice tool bar

Figure 3. Based on the classic Office 2003 toolbar, LibreOffice's enhanced menu system provides easy access to its many tools.

OpenOffice tool bar

Figure 4. Open Office's toolbars and menus differ only slightly from LibreOffice's.

Up close: The six modules and what they do

Figures 5–10 show the six modules in LibreOffice. (Open Office’s modules look and function much like those of LibreOffice.)

By default, LibreOffice Writer (see Figure 5) and Open Office Writer save text documents in an .odt format. But they can also open and save to .docx, .xml, .doc, .rtf, .txt, .ott, .sxw, .stw, .fodt, and .uot (United Office Format text) formats. Both suites can also create .html webpages and export directly to .pdf.

LibreOffice’s Writer also can export to .xhtml; Open Office’s version cannot.

LibreOffice Writer

Figure 5. Word 2003 users should feel right at home with LibreOffice (or Open Office) Writer.

Both versions of Calc (Figure 6) use .ods as their default file format, but they can also handle .xls, .xml, .xlt, .csv, .dif, .dbf, .ots, .sxc, .stc, and .slk file formats. Like Writer, both Calc versions can export to .pdf and .html tables. They also offer a method to automatically define a series of graphs based on the layout of the data — something Excel doesn’t do.

LibreOffice’s Calc also supports .xlsx, .fods, and .uos file formats, and they can export to .xhtml.

LibreOffice Calc

Figure 6. You can use Calc to open and edit most Excel spreadsheets, but formatting might be slightly different.

The default file format for Impress (Figure 7) is .odp. Other supported formats include .ppt, .pot, .otp, .sxi, .sti, .sxd, and .odg. Impress presentations can be exported to Adobe Flash (.swf), .html, and .pdf.

LibreOffice’s Impress also works with .pptx, .pptsx, .potm, .pps, .ppsx, .sxd, .fodp, and .uop formats — and exports to .xhtml.

LibreOffice Impress

Figure 7. PowerPoint users should find the transition to Impress relatively easy.

Both versions of Draw (Figure 8) can use the .odg, .otg, .sxd, and .std formats and can export to Adobe Flash (.swf), .html, or .pdf.

LibreOffice Draw also supports .fodg and exports to .xhtml.

LibreOffice Draw

Figure 8. Draw combines the vector-graphics capabilities of Microsoft Visio with desktop-publishing features somewhat like those in Microsoft Publisher.

The LibreOffice and Open Office versions of Math (Figure 9) are virtually identical. Both allow formulas to be embedded inside other documents, such as those created by Writer. Both use the .odf, .sxm, and .mml formats, and both can export to .pdf.

LibreOffice Math

Figure 9. Analogous to Microsoft Equation Editor, Math is a tool for creating and editing mathematical formulas.

As with Math, the two versions of Base (Figure 10) are essentially identical. While both use the .odb format by default, they can also function as a front end to a number of different database systems, including Access databases (JET), ODBC data sources, and MySQL/PostgreSQL. Both let you enter raw SQL code or create and query your databases via the graphical interface and toolbar.

LibreOffice Base

Figure 10. Base is a database management program analogous to Microsoft Access.

Pick the right suite by simply trying them out

Given that both LibreOffice (site) and Open Office (site) are free, you’ve little to lose by trying out both. Wikipedia has good articles on both products (LibreOffice page and Open Office page), covering their history, development, and current features.

Is either of these open-source MS Office substitutes right for you? If your office-suite needs are relatively modest, the answer is most likely yes. On the other hand, if you’re regularly collaborating with businesses that use Office 2010 or 2013 and exact reproduction of spreadsheets, presentations, and text documents is essential, it’s safer to stick with Microsoft’s suite.

I’ve used both Open Office and LibreOffice on various PCs over the years. I found both suites easy to use, with learning curves measured in mere minutes. I currently have LibreOffice installed on a portable PC and use it regularly.

I think LibreOffice is currently the better choice. It nicely does what I need done, quietly and without fanfare. It supports more file formats, including those used by the newest versions of Microsoft Office, and it has more developer momentum behind it. But that’s me; Open Office might work just as well or better for you.

A test drive is the key. Start by going to the LibreOffice download page and/or the Open Office download page. Installing and setting up either suite is relatively quick and easy.

Remember that these suites are alternatives to MS Office — not clones of it. As such, they work similarly to MS Office, but not necessarily identically. So, during your test drive of either suite, be sure to create, save, import, and export files of the types you typically use. Verify that your macros (if any) work properly, and that the suites support any complex formatting that you routinely use. It won’t take long: In short order — tens of minutes or so for each suite — you’ll know which (if either) fits your needs.

Bottom line: If you’re looking for an alternative to Microsoft Office that isn’t cloud-oriented, that uses traditional toolbars, and that’s totally free, you probably won’t go wrong with LibreOffice or Open Office!

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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.