Thursday, May 1, 2014

My thoughts on LibreOffice in my day-to-day work

LibreOffice is an open source cross-platform source office suite - you can read more about it here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LibreOffice) and at it's home page here (https://www.libreoffice.org/).

I've used a few open source office suites over the years - StarOffice (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/StarOffice), OpenOffice.org (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OpenOffice.org), Apache OpenOffice (https://www.openoffice.org/). I presently use both Microsoft Office and LibreOffice at my workplace, and in the course of my work.

What work do I do? Well, actually, I am working as an HR Practitioner at the moment (read Human Resources Officer, Personnel Officer, or whatever else HR-types are called in your company.) I do a lot of work that requires word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, macros, and working with PDF formats. I also have a need to maintain collections of files (read data in the form of advertisements and letters) in html and text formats, and to compile these into Windows Help (.CHM) format. LibreOffice handles all the document conversion for me, easily converting MS Word files into html and text formats from the command line.

I also use LibreOffice to create PDF forms and PDF documents with bookmarks. And I use it to maintain lists of information, and spreadsheet databases.

I love that it's open source, free and cross-platform. I love that it's powerful, and under intense development. I love that it can read and write many other file formats, including most Microsoft Office files. I love that I can use it from the command line in scripts and batch files.

For the most part, LibreOffice is good enough for normal office use, and it has some great power features. But it also still has lots of bugs and odd quirks, and there are little features that I miss. For example, in Excel I can use CTRL+" (the ditto key combination) to copy the contents of the cell immediately above into the present cell, but LibreOffice Calc has no similar key combination. And in Calc, using fill down sometimes produces strange results, or just doesn't work as expected - for example, filling down  a date seems to increment or decrement the year instead of incrementing the day (UPDATE - this seems to depend on how I format the date.) Error codes in LibreOffice are still very cryptic, and LibreOffice doesn't provide the sophisticated online help that Microsoft Office does. Some of the formulas I use in Excel just don't seem to work in LibreOffice, or else don't work quite as expected - I must point out, though, that this seems to be getting better and better all the time.

There are instances where LibreOffice seems to lack polish - for example, the Find command just does nothing. You have to use Find and Replace instead. (UPDATE - Ahem, I filed a bug report on the Find command, and someone got back to within minutes, pointing out gently that the Find command opens a search toolbar at the bottom of the LibreOffice window! Somehow I missed that!) Mail merge, while powerful, is far from easy to use. There are lots of extensions (add-ons) for it, they are almost all developed by the LibreOffice community. Some of the extensions enjoy updates and regular maintenance but many do not. LibreOffice doesn't make it easy for to work with parentheses in formulas, and I often find that I get stuck trying to unravel exactly where I made a parenthesis error in a formula.

I would love to see LibreOffice become the office suite of choice in the private and public sectors, but I can't honestly say that LibreOffice could do that just yet. Make no mistake - I'm in love with it, and I won't stop using it, but some of the bugs and quirks I've encountered are frustrating enough to give me reason to feel that mass migration to LibreOffice (or Apache OpenOffice) right now would be a mistake. I don't think the ordinary office worker would be able to just use it out of the box without good  in-company support mechanisms and access to the internet (for user groups, etc.)

BUT, I do think that businesses should start deploying LibreOffice to power/advanced users. I think LibreOffice is going to grow, and get better and better. I think it has fantastic potential, and that it is worth investing time and money to get a business' power users familiar with it, and skilled in its use.

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