OpenOffice.org was once the open-source office suite of choice, but it fractured into two separate projects — Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice. Never mind Oracle Open Office, which was actually a closed-source office suite and was discontinued.
Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice both still exist and are releasing new versions of their competing-but-similar office suites. But what’s the real difference, and which is the best one?
Why Do OpenOffice and LibreOffice Both Exist?
Understanding why there are two separate office suites built on the same OpenOffice.org code is only possible if you understand the history here.
Sun Microsystems acquired the StarOffice office suite in 1999. In 2000, Sun open-sourced the StarOffice software — this free, open-source office suite was known as OpenOffice.org. The project continued with help from Sun employees and volunteers, offering the free OpenOffice.org office suite to everyone — including Linux users.
In 2011, Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle. They renamed the proprietary StarOffice office suite to “Oracle Open Office,” as if they wanted to cause confusion, and then discontinued it. Most outside volunteers — including the contributors to Go-oo, who contributed a set of enhancements used by many Linux distributions — left the project and formed LibreOffice. LibreOffice was a fork of OpenOffice.org and is built on the original OpenOffice.org code base. Most Linux distributions, including Ubuntu, switched their bundled office suite from OpenOffice.org to LibreOffice.
The original OpenOffice.org seemed down and out. In 2011, Oracle gave the OpenOffice.org trademarks and code to the Apache Software Foundation. The project known as OpenOffice today is actually Apache OpenOffice and is being developed under Apache’s umbrella under the Apache license.
LibreOffice has been developing more quickly and releasing new versions more frequently, but the Apache OpenOffice project isn’t dead. Apache released the beta version of OpenOffice 4.1 in March, 2014.
But What’s the Difference?
You can download LibreOffice or OpenOffice for free for Windows, Linux, or Mac. Both office suites include the same applications for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and databases. These two projects share the vast majority of their code. They have similar interfaces and features.
Below, we have a screenshot of LibreOffice Writer, LibreOffice’s word processing program.
Next, we have a screenshot of OpenOffice Writer. These programs definitely don’t look completely identical. Aside from the different default theme, there’s an entire sidebar included in OpenOffice that LibreOffice doesn’t show by default. This sidebar is designed for widescreen displays where vertical space is at a premium.
The sidebar can be enabled in LibreOffice, too. (To enable it, click Tools > Options, select LibreOffice > Advanced, check Enable Experimental Features, restart LibreOffice, and click View > Sidebar.) With the sidebar enabled, the two programs look almost identical.
There are other differences, of course. Look at LibreOffice’s status bar at the bottom of the window and you’ll see a live-updating word count for the current document. On OpenOffice, you still have to select Tools > Word Count to view the word count at any given time — it won’t update and show itself automatically.
LibreOffice also has support for font embedding in documents. This can be activated from File > Properties, under the Font tab. Embedding a font in a document ensures that document will look the same on any system, even if the computer doesn’t have the font installed. OpenOffice doesn’t contain this feature.
We could go on looking for more differences, but this really just feels like nitpicking. The vast majority of people will have trouble noticing the difference between LibreOffice and OpenOffice. They’re both free and open-source, so you can always download both to compare — you probably won’t notice too much of a difference.
The License Situation
The sidebar above is an interesting example of where these projects are going. The sidebar in OpenOffice is an entirely new feature the Apache OpenOffice project has added to OpenOffice. On the other hand, the experimental sidebar in LibreOffice looks basically identical to OpenOffice’s sidebar.
This isn’t an accident. OpenOffice’s sidebar code was copied and incorporated into LibreOffice. The Apache OpenOffice project uses the Apache License, while the LibreOffice uses a dual LGPLv3 / MPL license. The practical result is LibreOffice can take OpenOffice’s code and incorporate it into LibreOffice — the licenses are compatible.
On the other hand, LibreOffice has some features — like font embedding — that don’t appear in OpenOffice. This is because the two different licenses only allow a one-way transfer of code. LibreOffice can incorporate OpenOffice’s code, but OpenOffice can’t incorporate LibreOffice’s code. This is the result of the different licenses the projects chose.
In the long run, this means that big improvements to OpenOffice can be incorporated into LibreOffice, while big improvements to LibreOffice can’t be incorporated into OpenOffice. This clearly gives a big advantage to LibreOffice, which will develop quicker and incorporate more features and improvements.
It Doesn’t Really Matter
It doesn’t really matter whether you use LibreOffice or Apache OpenOffice. Both are good choices if you’re looking for a powerful free office suite. The two projects are so similar that you’d be unlikely to notice the difference.
We’d recommend LibreOffice if we had to choose one of the two. It’s seen the most enthusiastic development and has the most potential in the long run.
But it’s hard to go wrong here. OpenOffice would probably work just fine for you, too.
It’s a shame such a contentious split occurred because OpenOffice had a huge amount of name recognition. There was a time when Microsoft was clearly worried about OpenOffice and produced videos attacking it, not unlike the Scroogled advertisements today!