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.]

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