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Can LibreOffice successfully compete with Microsoft Office?

Paul Rubens | June 26, 2015
It's hard to imagine an open source project more likely to fail than one that attempts to go toe-to-toe with Microsoft's Office productivity suite.

Meeks also works at Collabora a U.K.-based company that provides commercial support and maintenance for LibreOffice and he says the company uses LibreOffice software without any interoperability problems. "We run a multimillion dollar business using LibreOffice and we routinely exchange documents with lawyers and it works fine," he maintains.

Duplicate or innovate?

Positioning LibreOffice as an alternative to Office means that LibreOffice developers' hands are tied to a certain extent when it comes to choosing features and functionality to include, Meeks admits. That's because LibreOffice has no option but to reproduce many of Office's features to ensure compatibility. "Office creates files that we have to render, so that dictates some feature sets that we have to provide of course," he says.

But he says that there is still plenty of scope for the open source project to take the lead. "The Office suite has been dead in terms of innovation, and that means that we have the opportunity to start to develop new stuff."

For example? "Open source projects led with open document formats and Microsoft followed," he says. "And we had an idea for presentations that could be led from a mobile phone. We started that, and Microsoft copied us."

"Microsoft does great work, but we do, too," he adds. "Will we ever have a massive feature edge? I am optimistic."

The problem for an open source project like LibreOffice is that Microsoft has huge resources that it can use to fund innovative new features. It can also catch up with competitors by copying any particularly appealing features introduced by the likes of LibreOffice.

Clippy, anyone?

It also means that Microsoft can afford to fund the research and development of parts of its Office suite such as the user interface by hiring the top people in the field. That's something that open source project simply can't afford to do.

Meeks is not too worried by this. "One of the best beyond awesome design changes that Microsoft ever did was the introduction of Clippy. That was a disaster. I don't want to malign UI designers but having a big community of contributors is helpful because the changes that UI designers introduce don't always get universal acclaim. And look at Microsoft's ribbon interface: it had people screaming."

Meeks says that people prefer incremental changes to the user interface of a product they use every day, and this is something that the open source model does very well. "We iterate quickly, we are very agile and hopefully we make good progress."

Code quality is vital for a piece of software like LibreOffice, because users can easily abandon it for an alternative if it proves unreliable or prone to crashing. Research suggests that open source software tends to have a lower defect density (i.e. fewer bugs per thousand lines of code) than proprietary products, but to maintain downward pressure the Document Foundation organizes three-day community bug hunting sessions before releases. During these sessions mentors are available on IRC and by email to help less experienced volunteers triage bugs.

 

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