Comparing LibreOffice to MS Office and WordPerfect Office

Steven Vaughan-Nichols at ZD Net calls LibreOffice “the best desktop office suite,” which surprised me because I have always considered it a rather kludgy clone of MS Office. I have been using some variant of this office suite since SUN first open sourced it as OpenOffice.org in 2000, because it was the only decent office software in Linux. For years I used Go-OO which was a version of OpenOffice.org with some enhancements for better compatibility with Microsoft Office, because it was the version I found in Ubuntu and Debian. I followed the debates led by Novell’s Micheal Meeks over the governance of OpenOffice.org. When Oracle bought SUN, Meeks led a community of developers to fork OpenOffice.org to form LibreOffice, I switched again because it was found in the repositories of my favorite Linux distros.

After 15 years of using OpenOffice.org/Go-OO/LibreOffice, I still consider it to be a rather crude office suite. It works, but I certainly have never considered it “the best” as Vaughan-Nichols dubs it. When I survey the other office suites, I find OpenOffice/LibreOffice to be better than the other office suites in many areas, but worse in others. What is surprising is the fact that that when I weigh up all the pros and cons of the different suites, I come to the same conclusion as Vaughan-Nichols that LibreOffice is the best for me, but it certainly has room for improvement.
This software is commonly referred to as an “office suite” but I dislike that terminology, because it implies that word processors, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics editors, and databases are only used while on the job. For me, these are the fundamental tools that humanity uses to create and transmit ideas, knowledge, skills, art, etc., so these tools define how we express ourselves and how we learn from others. Obviously, these tools should be as good as possible, since they are used in a plethora of ways. It is worth taking the time to examine how well they serve our needs.

Many people became fascinated by computers by playing video games or surfing the web, but for me the word processor is the program which turned me into a computer geek. I learned how to use computers by playing with an 8086 which ran WordPerfect 5.1 and by fooling around with VAX terminals in college which also ran WordPerfect 5.1. I loved to turn on Reveal Codes and look at all the codes that underlay each document I was writing in college. Perhaps I am speaking from nostalgia for the late nights I spent writing papers in college while staring at that WordPerfect screen, but I still consider WordPerfect 5.1 to be one of the finest pieces of software ever created. On an 8086 or a VAX terminal with very limited resources, WordPerfect was capable of handling documents which were hundreds of pages long and it offered features like kerning and character overlay that other office suites still don’t support.

I thought it was so cool to be able to turn on Reveal Codes in WordPerfect and be able to edit the underlying code for a document. The programmers at WordPerfect say that they were inspired to include Reveal Codes by Donald Knuth’s TeX, and seeing the code that forms a document stimulated my curiosity about what happens under the hood of a computer. My first introduction to programming came from reading the WordPerfect 5.1 manual on macros. I had a summer job between my junior and senior year in college where the most interesting task was flipping through the blue three-ring binder which came with every copy of WordPerfect. It was 3 inches thick, and mostly used as a doorstop, but I found the section on macro programming to be absolutely fascinating, partly because it was so cryptic and used jargon I didn’t understand. After I figured out how to program WordPerfect, I then learned C. After that, I started picking up computer languages for fun. Along the way I have programmed in C, C++, various flavors of BASIC, PHP and JavaScript, plus dabbled in Python and Bash scripting.

In the computer lab at college, we had the option to use either MS Word or WordPerfect and I always chose WordPerfect. That preference continued through the late 90s and I continued to use WordPerfect to write my papers in graduate school in the early 2000s. I first installed Linux in 1999 and loved to play with the operating system, but I continued to use Windows as my primary operating system during graduate school because it ran WordPerfect. It was only once I quit school and no longer writing papers for classes that I finally switched to Linux for good in 2006 and have used it as my primary operating system for the last decade. Using Windows now that I have learned so many tricks with the command line in Linux is pure torture, so I will probably never return to WordPerfect, but I still miss it even after a decade of using OpenOffice/LibreOffice as my primary office suite.

Nonetheless, when I compare the office suites today, I am starting to agree with Vaughan-Nichols that LibreOffice is “the best,” despite the fact that it is lacking in a number of key areas. If I do a comparison of the features in the different office suites, I find that LibreOffice comes out on top in many categories, at least for my needs. It is worth running through the list of what each office suite does best and trying to rank them in order to better compare them each area.

Interface:
1. LibreOffice / WordPerfect Office
2. MS Office / Corel Office

Microsoft introduce the ribbon interface in Office 2007 for Word, Excel, Access and Powerpoint and it was extended to the rest of the software in Office 2010. Windows 7 used it for Paint and WordPad and Windows 8 extended it to the File Explorer.

Kingsoft Office also copies the ribbon interface, but it is an option which can be turned off. Corel copied the ribbon interface for its lower-end Corel Office which retails for $49.99, but has retained the traditional menu and toolbars interface for its higher-end WordPerfect Office. Microsoft is currently suing Corel, claiming that its ribbon interface is patented and can’t be used by any other office software.

There have been calls in the LibreOffice community to implement a ribbon interface. Some say that LibreOffice’s interface looks old fashioned and outdated, and others criticize it for being inefficient and not designed for touchscreens. As Xanderxavier writes:

… for anyone who’s used ms offices since 2003, it’s literally alien to go back in time to a pre-2003 interface, its smacks of downgrading, it’s less efficient to use, which is a shame, I would love LO to be a true alternative to msoffice suite, but due to what appears to be a lack of understanding of the importance of good UI, its simply not, they should have a special funding campaign to work on a ribbionUI for libreoffice, sooner rather than later.

Others, however, say that they choose LibreOffice, because they dislike the ribbon interface in MS Office.

Corel has faced a similar question about why it has introduced the ribbon in its cheaper Corel Office, but not in its more expensive WordPerfect Office? Peter Hanschke at Corel replied:

As for the ribbon, through conversations with our WordPerfect user base the message was very clear to not make radical changes to the UI. The notion of offering such an interface as an option is intriguing, one that is worth considering, however it must not radically change the overall UI.

In my opinion, the traditional menu and toolbar interface used by LibreOffice and WordPerfect Office is the superior way to interact with software. I say this as someone who has 10 years of experience working in tech support. In college I worked in the computer labs, helping people to use the computers. I fielded questions from all sorts of people and watched them interact with computers. I saw the difficulties encountered by people who are just learning to use a mouse and save files and people who needed help using equations in spreadsheets. For the last 7 years I have answered thousands of questions from users while worked at ProcessMaker, an open source business web application.

The ribbon interface used by MS Office and WordPerfect Office is simply a poor way to interact with software. People can learn to use it, of course, and some people even say that it is more intuitive and easier to use. However, I believe that it is an inferior interface for the following reasons:

  1. The ribbon interface takes up a large amount of vertical space on the screen which provides less room to read and edit documents, which is the primary purpose of an office suite. Over the last decade, computer screens have changed from a 3:4 to a 9:16 aspect ratio with fewer vertical pixels and the laptop have overtaken the desktop PC as the primary type of computer. The vast majority of laptops are sold with a low-resolution 768×1366 screen. With only 768 vertical pixels, almost a third of the screen is occupied by the bottom panel in Windows, the window frame, and the the tabs and icon panel in the ribbon interface. When MS Office is not maximized, in order to interact with other programs on the screen, there are often only 400 vertical pixels available to display the document, which makes it especially difficult to read.

    It is very hard to concentrate on the document, when needing to constantly scroll up and down in order to be able to see several full paragraphs of text or the previous columns of data in a spreadsheet. Even when I use a higher resolution 1080p screen, I find the big bar of blue color in the ribbon interface in MS Office to be very distracting from the document where I’m working.

  2. It takes far longer to find new options and learn the functionality of software with a ribbon interface. A traditional menu allows you to quickly read a list of options, whereas the ribbon interface forces you to hover your mouse over each option and read the tooltip that pops up. It takes me roughly 30 seconds to go through all the menus in LibreOffice to hunt for an unfamiliar option, whereas it takes me between one and two minutes to switch through every tab in a ribbon interface and look at every option by hovering the mouse. I’m familiar with most of the options in a word processor, so I don’t have too much problem using MS Word, because I know generally which tab to look under, but a ribbon interface is very tedious when you have to flip through every tab and examine every option. Learning dozens of new icons in a ribbon interface is a slower process than a traditional menu. The ribbon interface works fine, if you use the program every day, but if you only use the program once or twice a month, relearning all the different icons in a ribbon interface is a challenging task.
  3. For an experienced user, it does take slightly longer to select an option in a traditional menu than in the ribbon interface, especially if the menu option is two menus deep. Dragging the mouse through menus is slower than clicking on a tab and then clicking on an icon in the panel. However, the fastest way to interact with software is through the keyboard. After I have navigated through the menu in LibreOffice a half dozen times to select an option, I learn the shortcut key combination for that option, so I can use it in the half of a second which it takes to press a combination of keys rather the 5 seconds it takes to move the mouse and navigate through the menus. While MS Office still offers short cut keys, its ribbon interface does not show the shortcut keys in the tooltips for each icon, so the user never learns them. I have watched experienced users of MS Office and I rarely see them use any shortcut keys beyond the traditional ones which they learned years ago before the arrival of the ribbon interface such as CTL+s to save and CTL+c to copy. They are wedded to the mouse, which means it takes them significantly longer to create and edit documents than an experienced user of LibreOffice or WordPerfect Office.
  4. Offering technical support for software with a ribbon interface is very difficult over the phone or via chat. With a traditional menu, I can say, “go to the File menu and select Save”. With the ribbon interface in MS Office 2007, I have to say, “click on the round icon in the top right corner with the four colored squares, then select Save from the menu. In Office 2010, Microsoft removed the Office button which nobody recognized as a button and introduced the File tab. Now I get to say, “Go to the File tab and look for the image of a diskette and click on it.” Then, I might get the question, “what’s a diskette?” Then, I have to say, “hover your mouse over each icon and you will find the ‘Save’ option to click.”

Even when I compare MS Office 2003, which still used the traditional menu/toolbar interface, I still find that the interface of LibreOffice to be superior because it allows every menu, toolbar and shortcut key to be customized. LibreOffice allows me to easily reorder options and delete and add options in every existing menu or create my own menus. Its detachable toolbars can be customized, so that I only need one toolbar at the top, so I have more space on the screen to concentrate on the document. I can select the options in a toolbar by going to Tools > Customize and going to the Toolbars tab. I can do the same thing even quicker by right clicking on any toolbar and going to Visible Buttons in the context menu to select the options I want to include in the toolbar.

LibreOffice allows the text in the menus and the icons in the toolbar to be scaled, so it works for people with poor vision or high resolution screens. It includes three styles of icons, so I can select the “Galaxy” icons which are larger and easier to recognize than the default “Tango” icons, which are smaller and more subdued.

Nonetheless, there are aspects of the LibreOffice interface which I find very annoying, such as the fact that there is no way to turn off the floating toolbars which appear in different contexts. If I select text to copy or enter a table, toolbars for copying or tables popup on my screen and there is no way to disable contextual toolbars. I am constantly having to close floating toolbars.


Another annoyance is the new way to add headers and footers in Writer. When the cursor is positioned in the top or bottom line of a document, a blue box automatically appears overlaying the text.


If I accidentally click it, it adds a new header or footer to the page. Pressing CTL+z will not undo the action. The only way to remove the unwanted header or footer, is to go to Format > Page and unmark the option for Header on or Footer on.

Documentation:
1. LibreOffice
2. WordPerfect Suite
3. MS Office

You might be surprised that I would place documentation as the second item on my list, but I write computer documentation for a living, so I pay attention to its quality. I have written roughly 700 pages of documentation for software during my lifetime and it is my professional opinion that the documentation for MS Office is horrible. There is a plethora of documentation available for all three of the office suites. About 10 years ago, I was thinking of organizing the translation of OpenOffice in Quechua, but I gave up after I discovered that there was over 300,000 words to translate in just the OpenOffice interface.

The problem with MS Office documentation is that it uses text to describe what is primarily a graphical interface. As a simple example, take a look at the Microsoft documentation on how to save a file in a different location:

Save as a copy, or to a different location in Office 2007 and 2010

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Click Save As.
  3. In the File name box, enter a new name for the file.
  4. Click Save.

Notice there is not a single icon or graphic in the instructions to guide the user on how to interact with the ribbon interface, which is based on graphics and not text. When I write software documentation, I always include the graphical icon in the instructions, if the user needs to click on it. Even worse is the third instruction, “In the File name box, enter a new name for the file.” The instructions don’t inform you that a dialog box will open and that you need to look for the File name box inside the dialog box to enter the new name of the file. The instructions also don’t tell you whether you are clicking on a button or an icon, so you don’t know what element to look for.

Here is how I would write the same instructions:

Save as a copy, or to a different location in Office 2007 and 2010

  1. Click the File tab.
  2. Click on the [icon-graphic] Save As icon.
  3. In the “Save As” dialog box which opens, enter a new name for the file in the File name box.
  4. Click Save.

This may seem like a minor issue, but I know it can make a big difference when you are trying to figure out how to do an unfamiliar task or debug the software, because it isn’t working correctly. Microsoft reportedly made the decision to remove graphics from its documentation because it was causing confusion when the icons changed and graphics can’t be transmitted easily when providing tech support. However, this decision raises the question why use the ribbon interface in the first place if it is difficult to document and hinders providing tech support.

Even more important than the official documentation is the ability to find answers for tough technical questions. When I have a thorny question, there is no MS Office or WordPerfect forum where I can ask it, but LibreOffice is backed by a passionate community. If I ask a question on the LibreOffice forum, I’m likely to get an answer within a couple of hours.

I notice the quality of the LibreOffice forum, because I have been managing the ProcessMaker forum since 2009. I know from long experience that it is not easy to build up a vibrant community around an open source project that responds to people’s questions, but LibreOffice has managed to do it. It is easier to find answers to questions in MS Office by searching in Google, but LibreOffice is the best office suite for advanced users who have technical questions.

Copy and paste
1. MS Office
2. WordPerfect Office
3. LibreOffice

MS Office has a sidebar which stores the text which has been cut and pasted. This feature is an invaluable way to not loose text when working on long documents. I don’t know how many times I have cut text, intending to paste it in another section of the document, and have gotten distracted and forgotten to paste it until later when the clipboard is filled with other content. Even with a 100 levels of undo, it is sometimes impossible to get the cut text back. The cut-and-paste sidebar in MS Office can be a lifesaver in these situations and LibreOffice doesn’t offer anything similar. In Debian, I have to manually install CopyQ to get the same functionality.

Spell Check and Grammar Check
1. WordPerfect Office
2. MS Office
3. LibreOffice

WordPerfect includes the Oxford dictionaries for spell checking and synonyms, and its grammar checker is reportedly the best of any word processor. I haven’t used a recent version of WordPerfect to compare it to MS Word, but I have found both of them are far superior to the spell checker, synonyms and grammar checker in LibreOffice for English, Spanish and Portuguese. The Spanish spell checker in LibreOffice is particularly bad. The listing of synonyms in WordPerfect and MS Word is very useful when I’m trying to find a more sophisticated way to express myself.

On the other hand, the spell checker in LibreOffice is better for languages like Turkish and Finish which are agglutinative and have complex morphology. I speak from experience, since my Quechua spell checker was added to OpenOffice a decade ago, but it has since broken due to changes in the extension system in OpenOffice and LibreOffice.

Another advantage of LibreOffice’s spell checker is the fact that it will continue to work even when half the document is in another language. I have formatted around 20 bilingual dictionaries for publishing online at www.illa-a.org. When I try to load those dictionaries in MS Office, the spell checker shuts off because it can’t handle large quantities of text in an unrecognized language. In contrast, the LibreOffice spell-checker for Spanish or English works even when half the dictionary is in an unrecognized language like Aymara, Quechua or Guarani.

As for the grammar checker in LibreOffice, anyone can work on it to improve it, but I generally turn it off, since it only halfway works in English and is a joke in any other language that I speak. As much as I advocate the use of free/open source software (FOSS), I have to admit that the community has done a very poor job of providing decent spelling and synonym dictionaries for LibreOffice, much less creating grammar checkers. The proprietary software from Microsoft and Corel is simply better and will probably remain better if there isn’t an organized effort to improve the dictionaries and grammar checkers in the free software world.

Formatting Codes
1. WordPerfect Office
2. MS Office
3. LibreOffice

The Reveal Codes feature in WordPerfect makes it possible to control the formatting to a very fine degree. Whenever I can’t figure out how to fix a formatting problem or copy the perfect format, I turn on Reveal Codes and can find the exact code to delete or copy. One of the reasons why I dislike using Microsoft Word is the fact that it constantly inserts formatting that I do not want and it is hard to get rid of. MS Office, however, does offer a Reveal Formatting feature which doesn’t show the formatting codes, but does show the formats in a grouped listing in a sidebar.

Both of them are superior to LibreOffice which also auto-inserts a lot of annoying formatting like MS Office, but doesn’t offer any way to easily edit the formatting codes, aside from unzipping the file where the document is stored and directly editing the XML code. One nice aspect of LibreOffice is that much of the auto-formatting can be turned off by going to Tools > AutoCorrect Options, which makes the auto-formatting less bothersome.

Search and Replace
1. LibreOffice
2. WordPerfect Office
3. MS Office

LibreOffice offers the ability to search and replace with regular expressions. This feature is invaluable for me, since I frequently have to search and replace text in thousands of dictionary entries. Most of these dictionaries were converted to text with an OCR program which makes the same kind of mistakes over and over. I use regular expressions in LibreOffice to find and correct these mistakes, such as misrecognizing “ni” as “m”. I am able to reformat dictionaries by combining the power of regular expressions with LibreOffice’s ability to search and replace formatting and styles. No other word processor offers that same ability, except for TeX, which has too steep of a learning curve for me to bother using.

The one area where LibreOffice falls short is its inability to search and replace hard returns (new lines characters). The only way I have found is through macros. In contrast, it is very easy to search for hard returns in WordPerfect and MS Word.

Macro scripting
1. MS Office
2. WordPerfect Office
3. LibreOffice

Emacs showed the world the importance of scripting in word processing, and WordPerfect was an early leader in offering application scripting on the PC. Today all 3 of the office suites have excellent scripting languages. In my opinion, the Pascal style scripting language used in WordPerfect Office is more elegant that the BASIC style scripting languages used in MS Office and LibreOffice, but all of them are very powerful.

MS Office wins in macro scripting, because it has so many users and there are many macros online for Microsoft Office that can be downloaded for free and adapted. However, if you are creating your own macros, I can’t see any real difference between MS Office and WordPerfect Office.

LibreOffice is the worst office suite for creating macros, because it only offers limited macro recording in Writer and Calc. It cannot record actions which take place in another window, so it can’t record cutting and pasting between documents. It can only record actions in a document’s contents, so it can’t record making changes in the Options. It can’t even record making a selection with a mouse. For many years I didn’t even know that macro recording was available, because macro recording is turned off by default. It has be enabled by going to Tools > Options > LibreOffice > Advanced and marking the option Enable macro recording (limited). It takes me longer to create a macro in LibreOffice because it takes so much time to look up the functions online, whereas new functions can be learned in other office suites simply by turning on macro recording and then examining the code that was generated by doing an action in the software.

Spreadsheets
1. MS Office
2. WordPerfect Office
3. LibreOffice

All the spreadsheet programs in the office suites are solid tools. They all have the functions I need and I can’t see that one is obviously superior to another. The fill-down feature in Excel is better at recognizing patterns than LibreOffice Calc, so I often have to manually edit filled-down cells to correct them in LibreOffice. Excel is also better programmed to handle big spreadsheets which require lots of RAM and is faster at doing multi-threaded calculations, but I don’t have large enough spreadsheets to notice these differences. However, I have experienced crashes in LibreOffice when I’m working with spreadsheets with 30+ tabbed pages.

The biggest difference that I notice is the fact that graphing is not as good in LibreOffice Calc as in MS Excel. In particular, Calc does not have an option to insert a text box in the graphs like Excel, so I can’t insert custom labels in my graphs. I frequently use the subtitle and x axis labels to insert text inside Calc graphs, but they can’t be rotated. There are only two of them and I frequently need them for their intended purpose, so I have to resort to exporting the graph to LibreOffice Draw and manually inserting the labels.

I haven’t played with Quattro Pro enough to really rank it, but all the reviews say that Microsoft’s Excel is better than Corel’s spreadsheet program and its graphs are better to LibreOffice, so I will place it second in the list.

Presentations
1. MS Office
2. WordPerfect Office
3. LibreOffice

PowerPoint offers more options, templates and transitions than LibreOffice Impress. I don’t use PowerPoint very often, but when I do, I immediately recognize that it is better software.

Nonetheless, Impress is perfectly adequate for my needs. The biggest annoyance that I find is that sometimes full screen doesn’t work correctly when showing a presentation in Impress because it has trouble hiding the top panel in the GNOME 3 Shell. I frequently have to exit full screen mode and reenter it and sometimes I have to restart LibreOffice in order to get full screen mode to work correctly. I have started to design my slides so they don’t have text at the top which might be obscured by the Shell’s top panel.

I haven’t used a recent version of WordPerfect Office to properly rank its Presentations program, but most reviewers say that PowerPoint is better. Presentations offers a large number of transitions just like Powerpoint, and it has over 900 TrueType fonts, 175 digital images and over 10,000 clipart images in its gallery, so it might be better for creating nice-looking slides than PowerPoint.

Graphics and Photo Editing
1. WordPerfect Office / MS Office
3. LibreOffice

WordPerfect Office includes a bitmap editor and drawing program in Presentations which relatively good. Of course, Corel wants people to buy Draw, but I was impressed with the graphics editing in Presentation. WordPerfect Office also includes AfterShot, which is a RAW photo editor.

MS Office’s Visio is excellent for drawing and diagramming. Microsoft also offers limited photo editing and drawing with shapes inside Word and PowerPoint. For people who want to create diagrams, MS Office is better, but for people who need to edit photos, WordPerfect Office is the better choice. I’m going to rank them a tie for first place.

LibreOffice offers no photo editing and its Draw program is roughly equivalent to Microsoft Paint. Draw is much easier for me to figure out than Inkscape and Dia, so I generally use Draw when I need to create simple graphics, but the built-in graphics editors in Word, PowerPoint and Presentations are better in my opinion. Having to create a separate image in Draw and then cutting and pasting it into Writer or Impress is less convenient than having a built-in editor in the other office suites. One nice aspect of LibreOffice is that recent versions can export any graphic as a separate image file. I often create graphs in LibreOffice Calc and then add labels in Draw or in GIMP.

Mobile Phones and Tablets
1. MS Office
2. LibreOffice/OpenOffice
3. WordPerfect Office

Now that Microsoft offers apps for Word, Excel and PowerPoint in Android and iOS, it is easily the best supported office suite for mobile devices. The apps are free for non-business uses and reportedly pretty good, although I haven’t used them. In constrast, WordPerfect only offers a document viewer app for Android and iOS, which is not capable of editing documents.

LibreOffice offers a document viewer for Android which seems to work, although it is slow. It has an experimental option to edit documents, but it is largely unusable and should be avoided. Instead, it is recommended to install AndrOpen Office, which is a proprietary port of Apache OpenOffice for Andoid. It works well with my documents, although it is very slow when opening and editing large documents. It uses the same interface as the desktop version, which makes it very hard to use in my smartphone with a 5.7 inch screen. I have to turn off most the toolbars in order to be able to see more than two lines of text when my phone is in horizontal mode. My big fingers can’t access the menu very easily, because it is too narrow for me to touch without also touching either the top panel in Android or an OpenOffice toolbar. It might be possible to use AndrOpen Office with a stylus on a smartphone, but for people using their fingers, it needs at least an 8 inch screen to be used effectively.

Another problem is that AndrOpen Office has not customized the interface for touch screens. All the documents have scroll bars, which take up valuable screen space and are unnecessary because Android scrolls by moving the finger across the screen. AndrOpen Office has an on-screen keyboard, number pad and mouse, which obscure large portions of the document when activated. Double touching a word will select it, but the kudgey on-screen mouse has to be used to select anything else. Cut and paste becomes a very cumbersome operation, when you have to first activate the on-screen mouse, then select the text and cut it, then deactivate the on-screen mouse in order to see the document and reposition the mouse for pasting.

Despite AndrOpen Office’s problems, it is the most full-featured office suite that I have found in Android. It has all the options of standard OpenOffice and is definitely the program to use if you need to do serious editing of documents on a mobile device.

I feel ambivalent about using AndrOpen Office, since it is based on OpenOffice, but it has been turned into proprietary software, which is allowed by OpenOffice’s Apache license. It is an illustration why the free software community was right to support the LibreOffice fork, whose its LGPL license doesn’t allow the code to be privatized.

Sadly, efforts to create an Android version of LibreOffice are currently stalled and nobody has stepped forward to take over the task. In the Linux world, companies like Red Hat and Novell pay developers to improve the ecosystem and there is a collective effort to plug major holes in the software applications, but the companies who sell Android devices do not collaborate to collectively improve the Android ecosystem. LG, Lenovo/Motorola, Sony, Asus and Acer do not pay developers to help develop the essential apps in Android and Google only occasionally contributes through its Google Summer of Code program. The core of Android may be open source code, but it is not based on either the ideals or the practices of free/open source software. Google develops Android behind closed doors and is slowly privatizing the system by moving essential functionality to its proprietary Google Mobile Services. Google doesn’t even show the licenses of the software in its Play Store, so Android users downloading apps don’t even know if the software they are installing is “free” as in “free beer” or “free” as in “free speech”.

Scott McNealy, the CEO of SUN once commented that it was cheaper for SUN to buy StarOffice and open source it, than to continue paying the license fees for Microsoft Office. As computing shifts to mobile devices, more and more companies will need decent office software, but there is currently no collective efforts to gather funds from these companies to pay for a port of LibreOffice to Android and iOS. With Microsoft’s Word, Excel and PowerPoint being offered for free, it is hard to make the business case for why companies should financially support an effort to port LibreOffice. If a decent port is ever created, it will probably depend upon the passion of a few programmers working in their spare time. The only hope on the horizon is the fact that more governmental agencies, like the Italian military, are switching to LibreOffice, and eventually they might decide to pony up funds to make LibreOffice run on mobile operating systems.

Portability
1. LibreOffice
2. MS Office
3. WordPerfect Office

LibreOffice runs in Windows, Mac OS, Linux, BSD, Solaris and other flavors of UNIX. MS Office runs in Windows, Windows RT for ARM, Mac OS, and some of its applications have been adapted for Android. WordPerfect Office only runs in Windows (although many Mac users use it inside Parallels). Since I’m a Linux user, LibreOffice wins by default.

Portability is important because office software is going to make a major leap from x86 to ARM processors in the next couple years. This may seem like a wrongheaded prediction considering that Windows RT on ARM failed spectacularly, but the future transition to PCs running on smartphones and smart wearables is probably not going to happen in Windows. Instead, mobile operating systems will adapt to encompass the functionality of PCs and office software will be rewritten to adapt to any size of screen.

ARM processors are getting so powerful that they will eventually replace x86 as the processor for personal computers. Many mobile phones now contain more transistors than laptops. Apple’s A10 application processor has 3.3 billion transistors, whereas Intel’s Broadwell CPU in my Thinkpad T450s only sports 1.3 billion transistors. Mobile devices don’t have active cooling systems, so frequencies in mobile processors have to be throttled to prevent overheating, but Apple’s A10 and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 currently have enough processing power to handle document editing, web browsing and movie watching, which is enough for the majority of PC users. When mobile processors get to 7nm process nodes, they will probably be able to handle 90% of the computing tasks currently done PCs without overheating.

Another hurdle for converting mobile devices into PCs is the ability to project on a larger screen. Some of the higher-end devices have MHL, Slimport, micro-HDMI or Lightning ports which are capable of outputting to HDMI or DisplayPort, but most devices today have to rely on wireless signals using Miracast, Chromecast, WiDi or Airplay, which may drop frames and often require buying a special receiver attached to the TV, monitor or projector. The new USB Type-C port, however, promises to make it possible for any mobile device to output to DisplayPort or HDMI without the need for expensive wireless receivers or special converter chips in the cable or display device.

The biggest hurdles, however, lie in software development. Android and iOS need to be improved to better handle windowing, mice and other pointing devices, and multitasking in general. There is a serious lack of decent productivity software for mobile operating systems. MS Office mobile apps like Word, Excel and PowerPoint are currently only designed for small screens, but in the near future people will want to plug their phones into an external monitor and use them like a normal PC with a wireless keyboard and mouse. Google’s forthcoming Andromeda promises to create a hybrid operating system that can be bridge the gap between Android and Chrome, so that mobile devices can be used as PCs.

In all likelihood, Microsoft Office will probably make this transition to hybrid mobile PCs faster than the other office suites. Microsoft in recent years has decided that the future is not selling software licenses, but selling subscription fees to online services and monetizing users’ data, like Google does. Microsoft will try to move as many of its PC users as possible to its office software on mobile devices. It will be a challenge to create a scalable interface for hybrid mobile PCs whose features dynamically adapt to different screen sizes, but MS Office has already made the transition to internet servers, Android and iOS, so it seems likely it will make this transition as well.

In contrast, Corel has not shown much initiative in adapting to mobile computing and software as a service. The only area where WordPerfect Office excels in the future transition is in creating ebooks for mobile devices, but that functionality is not that hard to replicate. It will probably take Corel years to rewrite its code to separate its backend from the frontend and disentangle all the Windows specific code, so it is capable of running in Android and iOS and on internet servers which offer document editing through HTML and JavaScript in a web browser. WordPerfect used to be multi-platform software, but the last release of WordPerfect for Mac was in 1997 and most of the other software in the suite was written exclusively for Windows. When Novell released WordPerfect 7 for Linux, it ran through a Windows emulator, which is a good indication that the code will not be easy to adapt.

In contrast, LibreOffice’s code was designed from the outset in StarOffice to be multi-platform and LibreOffice has done a lot of clean up of that code to remove the ancient cruft and make it leaner and faster. Reportedly, it will not be that hard to adapt the LibreOffice code to run on internet servers and in Android and iOS, but LibreOffice doesn’t have much funding and corporate backing. Companies like Red Hat and Novell contribute developers to LibreOffice, and IBM contributes to Apache OpenOffice, whose code can be borrowed by LibreOffice, but none of those companies have a financial interest in porting LibreOffice to a mobile operating system. Any company that decides to offer office software as a service, is more likely to take the OpenOffice code and privatize it, so it won’t help LibreOffice. In all likelihood LibreOffice will eventually make the transition to Android or Adromeda, but it probably won’t happen quickly, nor will it likely attract much market share. People like me who value freedom over convenience will continue to passionately use it, but I can’t see it taking over the world.

In the context of mobile operating systems which Microsoft no longer controls and the open web, MS Office will have less advantages, and other competitors like Google, Apple, KingSoft or MobiSystems will probably gain market share in office software. I don’t foresee that any single office suite will dominate in the future, like MS Office currently rules the roost. Google will continue to push Google Docs, which will limit it to people who don’t mind storing their documents online and using its limited feature set. Apple’s iWorks will be limited to the 15%-20% of the world which use iPhones and iPads. The good thing about such a heterogeneous world is that OpenDocument or some other open standard for documents will likely become the norm, so that everyone doesn’t have have to try to figure out how to decipher Microsoft’s constantly changing file formats, which have  never conformed to its published specifications. In the new world of hybrid mobile PCs, the standard for judging the quality of office software will no longer be how well the other office suites conform to Microsoft’s standards, but how well Microsoft conforms to everyone’s open standard.

No matter whether office software is run on an internet server or from a smartwatch in the future, it will continue to be vitally important as the primary way that humans create content. As an advocate for free software, I will continue to use LibreOffice on my personal computer, but I recognize that other people have other priorities in choosing their office software. I have highlighted the differences which I think are significant between the office suites, but others probably have their own list. Clearly, there are major deficiencies in all of the office suites and none of them fulfills all my needs. Obviously, I’m not a “typical” computer user, but hopefully reading this article will help you decide which office suite best serves your own needs.

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