5 Myths About OpenOffice.org / LibreOffice

Most free software accumulates myths. Most people only know about it second hand (if at all), but few are slowed by the fact that they don't know what they are talking about.

As a large desktop application that is also cross-platform, OpenOffice.org (or should I say LibreOffice?) seems to have attracted more myths than most. Here are the top five that I have kept stumbling across in eight years of advocacy:

OpenOffice.org Can't Be Any Good Because It's Free

Most free software has faced this myth at one time or other. And, to be honest, sometimes it's true, in that some free software compares unfavorably with its proprietary counterparts.

But in OpenOffice.org's case, the myth is far too sweeping.

In the main office applications, the only place where OpenOffice.org lags behind MSO is in the presentation software; Impress remains less able to handle should than PowerPoint. Other software does not come bundled with OpenOffice.org, but often you can download free software to make up the difference -- for instance, you can use Mozilla Thunderbird rather than Outlook.

Overall, in almost every instance where you would use MSO for professional purposes, you can easily substitute OpenOffice.org. I know, because -- unlike most of OpenOffice.org's detractors -- I've used it professionally, even when I was a lone user interacting with an office full of MSO users. Once I learned the software, I never had any difficulties.

OpenOffice.org Is Immature Code

"I'd like to use OpenOffice.org," I often hear, "But I need software I can rely on, so I have to stick with with Microsoft Office."

To anyone like me, who can quote chapter and verse about the instability of MSO, or point out what has been broken for over a decade in it, this comment makes me burst out in a fit of giggles. And this reaction isn't anti-Windows or anti-proprietary prejudice; the information is widely known among power users. If I used Windows or proprietary software, I wouldn't be using MSO.

But, my initial reaction aside, this rationale irks me, because the idea that OpenOffice.org code is new simply isn't true. StarDivision, the office suite that is OpenOffice.org's ultimate answer, released its first component -- the word processor -- twenty-five years ago. Within another four years, the word processor had been joined by the rest of the suite.

Almost certainly, none of this original code remains in current versions. But, if anything, OpenOffice.org's coding challenges are exactly the opposite of what most people assume. Its problems are not adding features, but dealing with legacy code while adding new features and trying to minimize code bloat.

OpenOffice.org Is Just a Microsoft Office Clone

This charge seems part of a double-bind. If OpenOffice.org does not offer features comparable to MSO, or include features that MSO can easily import, then it cannot offer an alternative. MSO is, after all, the world's most popular office suite. Yet, when OpenOffice.org tries to retain compatibility, it is dismissed as a clone. Whichever path of development it chooses, OpenOffice.org can't win.

At any rate, the myth just isn't true. Although always concerned with MSO compatibility, OpenOffice.org has never simply imitated MSO. A handful of its spreadsheet functions have no equivalent in Excel. Nor has OpenOffice.org succumbed to replacing menus and toolbars with a ribbon interface like the one that MSO users are still complaining about several years after it was introduced.

Even more importantly, advanced use of OpenOffice.org depends on the use of styles to a degree that MSO does not. That is especially so in Write, which has five different types of styles where MS Word has only two, but is true of all OpenOffice.org's applications. By contrast, MSO seems to favor manual formatting over styles. For experts especially, OpenOffice.org is the office suite of choice.

OpenOffice.org Lacks Certain Features

Occasionally, this accusation may be true -- but not so often that I can remember a particular instance. Almost inevitably, when someone asserts this claim, it means that they have not spent enough time familiarizing themselves with the interface. They haven't noticed that the feature is in a different menu, or goes by a different name. Sometimes, the allegedly missing feature is one that is not enabled by default, but is one that you can quickly add by creating a macro or customized keyboard shortcut.

I also have to add that the same people who make this claim never seem to know OpenOffice.org well enough to mention the fact that there are some features -- such as page styles or a completely customizable table of contents -- that OpenOffice.org can boast but that MSO completely lacks.

OpenOffice.org Is a Second Choice

Mainstream reviews often start with the assumption that OpenOffice.org is a poor choice compared to MS Office -- that nobody would use it if they could afford to spend money on software.

This assumption ignores the philosophical and political concepts of freedom that makes OpenOffice.org the preferred alternative for some of us.

But, as an analysis, it is incomplete. If you take the time to learn how to use OpenOffice.org, then you quickly find that, in general, it compares very favorably. To be exact, I would say that OpenOffice.org's Impress is inferior to PowerPoint, largely because of its limited capacity to coordinate sound in presentations, while the spreadsheet Calc is roughly equal to Excel in features, capacity, and stability.

However, it is in word processing that OpenOffice.org really outperforms MSO. OpenOffice.org's Writer is as much an intermediate desktop publisher as a word processor, and (as I know from personal experience) can handle 700 page documents full of graphics while MS Word chokes on anything more than 30 pages unless you take extraordinary precautions -- and, even then, you better have regular backups in case of corruption. By contrast, OpenOffice.org is a plausible substitute for FrameMaker -- and you don't get more sophisticated in word processors than that.

Admittedly, OpenOffice.org does not come with some of the extras that MSO includes. But, browsing through the repositories, you can usually find equivalents, starting with Mozilla Thunderbird as a replacement for Outlook.

In short, in some ways it's true that OpenOffice.org does not compare with MSO. But in just as many ways, it's as good or better.

Assigning the Blame

Probably the most irritating aspect of such myths is that they have dogged OpenOffice.org from the first. Yet even in the 1.0 release, first made eight years ago, I could have debunked them in much the same terms as I've done here. The main difference that the intervening years have made is that my answers have become even truer than they were eight years ago.

I suspect that most of these myths are not reasons for avoiding OpenOffice.org, but excuses for laziness. When you have to pay for your software, you are more cautious about changing it than when you can download two or three alternatives in a matter of moments without paying anything. Too often, the perpetrators of these myths are laying the blame on the software when they should actually be blaming their own fear of change instead.

Despite such myths, OpenOffice.org remains a valid alternative for almost everyone -- and whatever Oracle or LibreOffice chooses to do, that is going to remain at least as true in the future as it is now.

[Over the last six years, I have covered most aspects of OpenOffice.org for Linux Journal. In fact, several people have told me that they have arranged my columns to create their own manual. However, while I could squeeze out a few more articles by going into detail about the functions in Calc, I've rapidly running out of ideas for new columns.

I will probably return to OpenOffice.org from time to time, but, starting next month, I'll be writing introductory articles to other major desktop applications instead.]


-- Bruce Byfield (nanday)


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"Things aren't going to

Anonymous's picture

"Things aren't going to change until WE ALL put a stop to this stupidity. Closed formats, unnecessary license fees, patents on "intellectual property" and "ideas". Frig, it is like putting a patent on the wheel. We don't reinvent the wheel anymore we make CARS NOW! We are never going to grow as a human race when we are all killing innovation and trying to make money off of other people success. Innovate people! Grow yourselves! Stretch a little and get out of your hole."


Why more users aren't converting

Sebt's picture

As a proponent of OO and FOSS for some years, and many years of software development/design behind me, here are the negative comments I hear most often from would-be converts:

1. Since you're struggling to recall a particular feature that OO lacks, here's one: No outliner in OO writer. The Navigator is no substitue, and Word's outliner has become essential for way more users than you might guess from scanning forums and blogs. Since the outliner is central to many users' workflow, it is painful to move away from. It is also one of the most long-requested feature additions that's seemingly ignored by the OO steering group.

Solution: obvious. Add outline view, make it similar & compatible for the user, and add some flexibility where long-standing outliner limitations/bugs are bemoaned (eg. using outline view as quick document navigation function, word will not locate the corresponding position and edit cursor when switching to normal or print Layout views)

2. Document compatibility. Microsoft's recent FUD-commercial about OO, while involving some questionable use of colour in shaping the viewer's psychology, overstates a nonetheless valid point: moving documents back and forth between (say) Writer and Word is often problematic. Usually it's simple things like minor formatting issues, but sometimes issues are more major, such as losing Word's in-place comment and revision tracking when using collaboration features. When you save as .doc in OO, you shouldn't need to open the doc locally in word to fix all the things that were messed up in the save. Sound familiar?

Solution: establish a priority list of word document features by popularity and work through the list to make OO more compatible, visible to most users with each improvement. IMO: margins, styles, fonts, tables, fields, header and footer should all be high on the list. Framed/nonframed graphics next, embedded objects and other lesser used features at the bottom.

3. "OpenOffice.org Is a Second Choice": All valid points but understating what for me should form part of the mission statement for OO: make it good, make transition easy, then make it better. As you point out, OO is feature comparable to MSO by and large. And it's UI sits well with MSO 97/2K/2K3 users, the overriding majority who are frustrated by ribbons and other pointless UI changes. What we know: MSO hasn't really changed much since office 95. Most new releases since then fixed the worst problems and messed with the UI, without addressing the slew of old bugs, niggles and behavioural inconsistencies. Really, some of these date back to office 4.3 (word 2.0). So while points (1,2) above fall under "make it good, make transition easy", this point is about "make it better". Start leading instead of following. While keeping OO campatible with and usable by MSO users, start making it a pleasure to use by improving behaviours, performance and capabilities. We see some of this in the document layout area as you mention, but these features are comparatively little-used. Table manipulation, for instance, is something that gives headaches to every word user; make it slicker, faster, more intuitive and less frustrating.

The balance between maintaining compatibility and simplifying transition for MSO users vs. outgrowing MSO is difficult but workable. What's needed is impetus and enthusiasm, together with some development muscle to make it happen. Until recently, development in OO was fairly stagnant - now, there's the perception of a buzz. OO/LO needs to steer this and engage the community in the same way that Mozilla has managed. Then we will see OO/LO grow into the dominent force, in and in the interests of the public domain.

sebt :)

Your OO.o LJ columns?

Anonymous's picture

I've missed your OO.o columns but would be interested in reading them. Are they available online somewhere, or they were only published in the print edition? (I am not a LJ subscriber).


There are a lot of

Webmistress's picture

There are a lot of OpenOffice.org posts here on LinuxJournal.com, and they are pretty easy to find. To start with, you might want to click on the OpenOffice.org category tag, which will take you here: http://www.linuxjournal.com/tag/openofficeorg

Katherine Druckman is webmistress at LinuxJournal.com. You might find her on Twitter or at the Southwest Drupal Summit

Open Office

Anonymous's picture

I've been using OOo for many many years as my primary office suite, even sneaking it in to work and letting everyone just believe that I was using MSO. For five of the last ten years I've used Linux on the desktop so MSO wasn't even an option. And if I found an incompatibility I raised a bug report and where possible submitted example documents to help the developers. In my opinion OOo has come a long way and many of the enhancements have definitely been in recent years. Maybe the UI is a little long in the tooth but I would much rather have functionality fixed and no ribbon pushing my document down until only half a dozen lines are showing! I've used OOo in all MS environments including working with SharePoint sites. I'm not saying it's integrated but it is certainly possible. I wonder if Oracle started selling it for 99.99, while keeping the free downloadable version for those who felt comfortable, if OOo install would suddenly increase!

For me, generally better than MSO but...

Phoenix PHP Developer's picture

I find that MSO handles editing very large word processing documents (ie. > 500 pages) much better, smoother and faster than OpenOffice. However other than that, for 99% of the documents, spreadsheets, presentations, etc. that I do, OO works the same if not better. And you can't beat the price! :)


Go Libre!

click's picture

I do not use office a lot, everything I do can be done with vi/nano, but I need office for my calendar and my corporate mail - MS Exchange. I use Google Office for calendar and some presentations/word processing because I can access my files anywhere, it can generate PDFs which are "the same" on any platform and office, and have to use Outlook for my mail. I`ve always dreamed that one day OpenOffice will be able to read my Exchange mail, to generate platform independent files, to sync my calendar with my mobile phone, to edit in Sharepoint(or have an alternative for it). But that day seems very far from here since Snoracle arise. You can say whatever you like for MS office and yes it will mostly be true(it is bloated, un-updated etc) but corporations use it not because it is good code but because functions like Exchange, Sharepoint, cross-platform word, powerpoint and mostly because every other platform comply with it. Yes, if your OpenOffice could nott read MS files it would be dead by now, that is the true. While masses use Microsoft Office every other platform will be just a step behind.

p.s. Do not get me wrong, I do want an alternative/competitor to MSO that runs on Linux/BSD but OpenOffice is far from that. Here you go, another 5 myths :D

They violate our dreams, lets set a 7-year clock, re-earn trust!

cbemerine's picture

I`ve always dreamed that one day OpenOffice will be able to read my Exchange mail, to generate platform independent files, to sync my calendar with my mobile phone, to edit in Sharepoint(or have an alternative for it)

They (proprietary vendors) do violate our dreams with their vendor lock-in, Embrace, Extend, Extinguish and incompatibility antics, don't they!

Know that your hardware will work with Linux...

The only solution is to stop using the proprietary vendor's software (and hardware...visit ZaReason or System 76), especially when their track record proves (beyond doubt) that they do NOT want to be compatible in order to force you to spend more money on their products. They infiltrate the standard setting bodies gumming up the works with their proprietary BS...its been documented.

Right now, we are in a unique period. There are superior open source solutions to all of our business and personal needs. There are no exceptions any more. The problems we have are ALMOST ALWAYS due to the proprietary vendor doing something to cause the situation. Eliminate the proprietary product and the problem literally goes away.

Reset your 7 Year Clock!

They can only hurt you if you continue to use their products, the best thing to do is to choose "not to play". Perhaps if they re-earn your trust after a 7 year positive (nothing negative toward standards, other products, compatibility with codecs, data formats, FOSS, etc..) track record than you might once again consider any of their solutions, but I can not imagine why they would deserve yet another opportunity to screw us over.

At each occurrence of the proprietary vendor abusing their market power (abusing our trust), reset YOUR 7 year clock. They have been abusing our trust for over 20, no 25 years; so a 7 year hiatus from them; for them to re-earn your trust is more than reasonable.

Your not insane, so stop making insane purchases!

The very definition of insanity applies, continuing to do the same thing and expecting a different result. Your not crazy, right? Why continue with that BS crazy roller coaster/ferris wheel scenario. Jump off the crazy train and find sanity. Have a life, you deserve it.

Boycott until they re-earn your TRUST, if they even try!

If enough of us had stopped purchasing their products when they lied to us about problems in the DOS/Windows 3.1 app era, perhaps they would have adopted a more professional pro consumer stance. We have no one to blame but ourselves, as my guess is most of us continued to purchase their products in spite of all the problems. I stopped four years ago, 2006, and love it!

I for one am not taking their crap anymore (have not been for 4 years now) and am much happier for it, so what is your excuse?

No Root Access = dumb device = dumb phone

And going forward, if an embedded device does not have true root access to configure and tweak, I do not buy into yet another blind alley. Thankfully we do not have too today!

Linux + root access + Linux hardware = Freedom!

With Linux, you have plenty of options, so if a distro like Ubuntu gets on their high horse and attempts to force their use solution on you and it will not work for you, you can just switch distros, all your your software products will just work. Or you can fork it the way LibreOffice did. At least if you purchased hardware meant to run Linux, it will! Stop shopping in big box stores for anything but pieces and parts.

All your applications will just work. The only person who should take down your IT infrastructure (handheld, PC, network, WiFi, VPN tunnel, DNS, etc..) should be you and you shall schedule it for a valid reason.

Now I need Fiber, Short URL to Google Map showing the 20 or so places in the USA where consumers can get bi-synchronous Fiber To The Home (FTTH) Internet: http://sn.im/1axal4

Raising my beverage to toast, Here's to hoping I do not have to move to get decent bandwidth! But I will if I have too!

Full URL to FTTH Google Map in case shortened URL server is down

cbemerine's picture

Here is the full URL to the Google Map, when I checked the shortening server was down, so just in case, here is the full URL:


Send me an email if you know of any other location offering bisynchronous FTTH Internet. FIOS does not qualify as they offer 50Mb/5Mb...and I have yet to met someone running DD-WRT, OpenWRT or Tomato firmware on their firewall/router to verify whether FIOS throttles, restricts, limits bandwidth (especially upstream bandwidth) on their service or not.

I know for a fact that 100% of cable Internet providers restrict, limit, artificially reduce their customers bandwidth. I pay for 20Mb/2Mb and am throttled to less than 101Kbps/30Kbps over 80% of the time. Thus DSL would be 3 X faster than the reality of what is provided to me.

You can literally see the speed get locked down as soon as the speed test finishes, its really pathetic.

You think they would at least provide a minimum of 768Kbps (FCC definition) both upstream and downstream to be considered broadband....but they do not. Talk about false advertising! There should be a law against it.

Evolution will

Morten Juhl-Johansen Zölde-Fejér's picture

I have used Evolution to access my office Exchange. I have only seriously used it with the mail aspect, not the other features much - but it seemed to behave.


click's picture

Yes, Evolution plugin works fine(except for the calendar) with Exchange 2003, not with 2007 :(. Imagine if all corporations were using OS independent protocols, ahh but then we would`t needed Virtualbox to read e-mail :D

I wouldn't call OO.o lacking

Anonymous's picture

I wouldn't call OO.o lacking features a myth anymore. I've been a fan of OO.o since it was StarOffice but it's really been languishing the last few years while Microsoft has been moving forward. Maybe the whole OO.o / LibreOffice kerfuffle will get it moving again.

thx for this article :)

oschina's picture

thx for this article :)