Once, whenever you referred to the free productivity suite that competes with Microsoft Office, people knew exactly which program you were talking about. Lately, though, OpenOffice -- formerly of Sun/Oracle, now under the aegis of the Apache Foundation -- has taken a backseat to LibreOffice, an upstart spun off from OpenOffice's own source code. While the two share a common code base and similar missions, they differ in their feature sets and the licensing for their source code.
For some time, LibreOffice seemed to have taken the crown from OpenOffice. Libre had commandeered a sizable portion of the OpenOffice developer base, introduced a faster revision cycle, and attracted a large number of users, thanks in part to LibreOffice now being the default productivity suite for many Linux distributions.
But OpenOffice has staged a comeback, with a new revision to the left of the decimal point. Challenging LibreOffice's spanking new version 4.1, Apache OpenOffice 4.0 boasts a splashy in-document user interface, hundreds of bug fixes, and many more features big and small. Is it enough to take back the crown?
The reigning champ: LibreOffice 4.1
It's somewhat astonishing how quickly LibreOffice grabbed the spotlight from its older brother, but at least some of the blame belongs to the way OpenOffice changed hands multiple times -- Sun, then Sun/Oracle, then Apache -- with the project's directions handled rather autocratically at times. In response, LibreOffice was spun off by former OpenOffice project members who wanted to give the software a better home and a more predictable release schedule (every six months).
LibreOffice 4.0, which debuted back in February, didn't quite seem like a 4.0 product. The changes were mostly incremental or trivial. For instance, although the improvements to .docx cross-compatibility and the ability to attach comments to ranges of text were useful, the ability to use Firefox Background Themes as a skinning mechanism for LibreOffice was frivolous at best.
Version 4.1 is at about the same level of change: incremental, if generally positive. The LibreOffice folks haven't undertaken any radical reworking of the program. The look and feel haven't shifted at all, and they've wisely kept many minor interface updates that made sense. For example, in Writer, the word counter shows up in the document's status bar; you don't have to tediously invoke it from a menu option, as still required in OpenOffice.
Some 3,000 bug fixes have been committed to the code base, so you can't fault LibreOffice's maintainers for not being good custodians of their code. One major set of improvements addresses an issue common to both LibreOffice and OpenOffice: better handling of Microsoft Office documents, both legacy and current formats, via LibreOffice's improved document translation filters. This time, a key fix smooths the way auto-numbering or bullets are translated from Word documents. Previous editions of LibreOffice didn't translate graphical bullets properly; this one does. I've been bitten by this particular bug a few times, so I was heartened to see it fixed.
Other little changes involve features not present in OpenOffice at all (yet). Take font embedding, for example; if you wanted to save an ODF document with fonts embedded, your only option was to save as a PDF. LibreOffice 4.1, though, includes font embedding as a document properties option. Another addition: The ability to rotate images in-place in Writer, albeit only in 90-degree increments. A third feature: The ability to insert multiple pictures at once as a "photo album" in an Impress presentation. LibreOffice has it; OpenOffice doesn't.
The comeback kid: OpenOffice 4.0
OpenOffice 4.0 feels much more like a 4.0 release than LibreOffice's 4.0 did. It constitutes a major bump in the program's functionality and usability, even if those changes largely revolve around a single major new feature: the sidebar.
The sidebar is exactly what it sounds like: a side panel that displays either the currently selected object's properties, or the styles and formatting pane, or the clip art gallery, or the document navigator. In previous versions of OpenOffice, they were present as side-dockable toolbars, but it's nice to have them all in one place. If you don't like the sidebar, it can be collapsed or tucked away completely with a click, but I left it open and found it more useful than not. (The folks at Apache claim it's a better way to make use of on-screen real estate for widescreen displays.)
If the sidebar seems vaguely familiar, it might well be. The code comes by way of IBM's Lotus Symphony project, a now-defunct spinoff of OpenOffice, donated to Apache for use in OpenOffice itself. Actually, LibreOffice has this feature as well, albeit only as an option that has to be enabled manually through the program's advanced options menu.
The rest of OpenOffice's look and feel is still very much the same. As I've grown more used to the ribbon-style controls introduced by the likes of Microsoft Office 2007, the dockable toolbars in OpenOffice (and LibreOffice) seem antiquated to me, but they get the job done.
Like LibreOffice, though, OpenOffice has added tons of under-the-hood improvements, many of them addressing .docx cross-compatibility and other irritating behaviors, like improper section header numbering in Word documents. Some are actual expansions of functionality, such as the addition of support for the GETPIVOTDATA function in Excel (also supported in LibreOffice) -- rather vital considering one of the biggest Excel contingents are number crunchers who use Excel as a front end for PivotTable reports.
And like LibreOffice, OpenOffice has continued to phase out legacy components (the StarOffice file format filters, for instance) and reduce the suite's dependence on Java. Base, the database component of OpenOffice, requires Java, but the other apps in the suite need it only for specific functions. It'll be a while before Java can be completely removed, though; don't bank on this happening anytime soon in either version of the suite.
OpenOffice 4.1 (above) introduces the sidebar, which handily displays the currently selected object's properties, the styles and formatting pane, the clip art gallery, or the document navigator. If you want the sidebar in LibreOffice 4.0 (below), you can enable it through the advanced options menu.
Side by side: Key differences
Put OpenOffice 4.0 and LibreOffice 4.1 next to each other on the same system, and differences emerge even apart from their respective feature sets. For one, OpenOffice launches noticeably faster than LibreOffice, even without the OpenOffice Quickstarter function turned on. The Quickstarter isn't even included in LibreOffice anymore, a hint as to how the two projects are on somewhat divergent development paths.
Despite the extensive work put into both suites, they still have trouble converting large, complexly formatted Word documents. I fed an 800-page project to both programs, and it opened in both but exhibited different conversion issues in each. Neither app converted the document's custom section numbering correctly. In LibreOffice, the page numbers in footers didn't convert properly; in OpenOffice, they didn't covert at all. Also, the "Web layout" view in both programs, which presents documents in something akin to draft mode in Word, fails to present the user with an accurate page count. Of course, these shortcomings are more nitpicks than showstoppers, especially if you've already adopted either suite and made ODF central to your workflow.
The biggest differences involve an issue that most desktop users aren't typically concerned with: licensing of the source code. OpenOffice is now an Apache Foundation project, so it uses the Apache license, whereas LibreOffice is licensed under the LGPLv3. Consequently, code from OpenOffice can be migrated to LibreOffice but not vice versa. Extensions created for one suite can be migrated more or less as-is to the other, though they need to be tested.
Both projects also have different development cycles. OpenOffice has historically released new versions whenever the development team has been ready. The Document Foundation promises new revisions of LibreOffice every six months, partly for predictability and partly as a way to sync up with the releases of other products (such as Ubuntu Linux).
Do we have a winner?
Comparing OpenOffice and LibreOffice isn't like comparing, say, Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro. Because both programs are open source and share a code base, they're more similar than different. Today, LibreOffice has a slightly better range of new and improved word processing features, while OpenOffice is slightly ahead in performance. This could change in six months or sooner.
The choice boils down to how they're implemented and how well their features and development cycles match user needs. LibreOffice has the edge in terms of regular updates, but OpenOffice releases feel meticulously polished. If you want cutting-edge feature sets, go with LibreOffice. If you want the most refined versions of the features available, go with OpenOffice. Both are free, so at least you don't have to choose based on price.