The Document Foundation released the first new version of its LibreOffice suite on January 25th, and it was far too tempting not to grab a copy and run it through its paces. And while there are a few new features of note, this is still pretty much OpenOffice.org, with all the attendant advantages and foibles.
This is to be expected, of course, since the fork of LibreOffice from the Oracle-controlled (formerly Sun-controlled) OpenOffice.org project only occurred four months ago. Expecting a drastic change is folly in that timeframe. But it still bears noting, because a lot of the problems users may have with the OpenOffice.org suite could still be present.
A lot, but not all, so let’s give credit where credit is due. The feature I found most helpful in LibreOffice 3.3 was a much better improvement in file importing from Microsoft Office. OpenOffice.org has long-touted its capability to open and save Office files, but in reality most users know that any file with any kind of complexity was going to have to have problems coming across.
In LibreOffice, that’s no longer the case. Opening some heavily-revised and commented chapter files from my last book in OpenOffice.org usually leads to mis-rendered comments and loads of font issues. LibreOffice Writer didn’t even blink: all revisions, comments, and fonts came across perfectly. This was good news, since I would much rather use LibreOffice on Linux than fire up a Windows VM when I’m writing for publishers insistent on clean .docx files.
The remainder of LibreOffice Writer’s new features were also useful. I liked the page numbering tool, and I really appreciated the new Print dialog box (which is present in all of the LibreOffice tools). I know, it’s a little odd to get excited about a dialog box, but I always have found the OpenOffice.org Print dialog box rather clunky, so it’s LibreOffice counterpart is a breath of fresh air.
Calc was another story. Fonts and basic were converted perfectly, but there are a lot of not-really-that-obscure Excel functions that didn’t come across at all. Seriously, what good is it to have SUMIF and COUNTIF but not their multi-range/criteria counterparts SUMIFS and COUNTIFS? And don’t look for AVERAGEIF and AVERAGEIFS — not there. These are not, I believe, all that rare, and the lack of these functions and others like them are a notable detriment.
It may be a bit harsh to hold LibreOffice (and OpenOffice.org before it) Calc developers to the fire for this kind of thing. I often have to explain to my students why DATEDIF is in Excel, but is completely undocumented — the result of a lawsuit between Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft where Microsoft got to keep DATEDIF, but can’t document it. So I completely get why some functions can’t just be pulled into LibreOffice. But I would be interested to hear what, if any, progress was being done on adding more functions, because for me functions are the core of what makes a spreadsheet app work.
I might be a bit more forgiving about Calc, too, if I hadn’t tried to open a spreadsheet with a pivot table inside only to have Calc and every other LibreOffice window completely crash. I don’t know if it was the pivot table that croaked the application, but that was the only file I had trouble with, and the pivot table was the unique factor about that particular file. I can forgive a lot of shortcomings, but complete application crash is not really one of them.
LibreOffice Impress, fortunately, was a better experience. PowerPoint presentations opened easily, and the font and images transfer, while not perfect, were handled far better than OpenOffice Impress did with the same files. That’s important, because it’s always bugged me that Impress could never handle slide imports cleaner. LibreOffice 3.3 has taken some nice strides in the right direction here.
I also very much liked the fact that the Presenter’s Console, the multi-screen slide show controller that you had to follow a treasure map, travel across four states, and speak to a wizened old man on a mountaintop just to even hear about, let alone find and install on OpenOffice.org, is now bundled as an extension in LibreOffice. I’ll say it: it’s about time. The rigmarole OpenOffice.org puts users through to get add-ons like this is indicative of why people don’t like OpenOffice.org: it puts users’ needs last.
This is not the case with LibreOffice. While there is clear evidence that some developer’s itches are getting scratched–(SVG import? Really? I’ve got nothing against vector graphics, but are Draw or the other LibreOffice apps really going to be the editors of choice?)–there is also compelling evidence, like the inclusion of Presenter’s Console, that the Document Foundation developers are swing their focus to what’s important for users, not what’s a best business model for Oracle.
Put in that light, I am very willing to watch and see what LibreOffice gives us next.