Comparing Microsoft Office to Open Source Alternatives

How do open source productivity suites compare to Office 2013—and does it make sense for your organization to implement one rather than the commercially licensed, ubiquitous offering from Microsoft? We compare three toolsets on philosophy, price, and features to help you decide...

For a long time, nonprofit organizations had a choice of two office productivity suites: Microsoft Office and Microsoft Office. The dominant market offering, Office eventually yielded some popularity when a viable open source competitor, OpenOffice, emerged, followed by another open source option, LibreOffice.
 
How do these open source suites differ from Microsoft Office? Should your office consider one of them, and will they make sense for your users and infrastructure?
 
To help you decide, we compared key features of the latest version of Microsoft’s suite, the Office 2013 Professional edition, to Apache OpenOffice 4.0 and LibreOffice 4.1, both released in July 2013. Both open source suites offer a tool called “Base” that’s similar to Microsoft Access, a tool called Draw similar to Microsoft Visio, and an equation editor called Math, while Microsoft Office includes the desktop publishing application Publisher, but for the purposes of this article we’ll look at the word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools.
 

Open Source vs. Commercial

Before we look at specific features of the competing suites, it may be helpful to take a step back and compare the philosophical differences between the three packages and how they might affect how you purchase and use the suites.
 
Commercially licensed software like Microsoft Office is developed by a single vendor—sales help fund product-testing and development, marketing and sales, and salaries and shareholder dividends. In contrast, open source software is developed collaboratively, often by volunteers, and distributed freely to allow anyone to use, redistribute, adapt, or improve the code free of charge.
 
The open source philosophy is not just limited to software, and can attract loyal adherents who believe that information should be shared. The flipside is that some consumers are more comfortable with a for-profit model they feel rewards ingenuity and innovation. If you have deep a conviction in either direction, it’s not likely that we’ll change your mind—for the rest of you, each model has tangible advantages and disadvantages that we’ll look at in closer detail.
 
First, the cost: Open source applications often cost nothing—OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both free, and who doesn’t love a bargain? Microsoft Office 2013, on the other hand, costs from $139.99 to $399.99 depending on the edition, but is available to eligible U.S.-based nonprofits and libraries for a minimal fee ($24 to $32 depending on the version and edition through TechSoup  at http://www.techsoup.org/microsoft-catalog).
 
Updates to the latest-and-greatest versions of the open source applications are also free, but the same is not always true for Office 2013. Users have to buy new versions of the software—Office 2010 users who want to upgrade to Office 2013 have to pay for the new edition, for example—but smaller updates between major releases are free. If you currently hold a valid license of Office with Software Assurance (http://www.microsoft.com/licensing/software-assurance/default.aspx), a support-and-benefits service available to volume licensing customers, you may be able to upgrade to newer versions released during your coverage period for free.
 
In the pricing area, licensing is another advantage—because of the open source suites’ looser licensing requirements, you don’t have to worry about installing unlimited copies around the office or at home. You can download and install the software on as many machines as you like. However, when you buy or receive a version of Office 2013, you may only install it on a specified number of computers within your organization—that number depends upon which edition of the suite you purchase, so you'll need to keep track of exactly where it's been installed.
 
Another advantage of open source code is that you can do what you like with it. You can study OpenOffice or LibreOffice and customize them to your needs, improve them any way you see fit, or use the code to create something completely new and release your changes to the public. If this is important to you, Microsoft doesn't offer anything comparable.
 
Commercially licensed software has its advantages, too—it comes with all the benefits of the company behind the code. Microsoft relies on the sales of Office and other software applications to remain profitable, giving it a strong incentive to offer the features, support, and interface that will make its software attractive to users and competitive in the market. Microsoft has built a vast pool of talented developers, a mature platform, and polished user interfaces, and the success of Office has provided it with a large user- and support base.
 
The mandates for open source applications are fuzzier than for commercially licensed software. The tools tend to be driven by tech-savvy programmers, a practice that can result in somewhat less-polished interfaces and limited documentation. But because their source code is available to all, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are not solely dependent on their current crop of developers and corporate sponsors—even if all those people supporting the project were to disappear, the code would still exist, and other people could pick up where they left off.
 
The same is not always true for commercial projects. That said, it doesn't appear that Microsoft is in any danger of going bankrupt in the foreseeable future.
 

Comparing Suites

Whether open source or commercial, how does each of the three suites compare against the others?
 
First, a little about the two open source tools: OpenOffice and LibreOffice are very similar products, both built upon the same source code. When Sun Microsystems purchased OpenOffice, and was subsequently taken over by Oracle, the community split and LibreOffice was created in parallel. (The OpenOffice project has since been handed over to the Apache Foundation.) In a practical sense, users won’t see much of a difference between the two tools, and deciding between them will likely come down to personal preference or word of mouth rather than features.
 

Usability and Interface

Microsoft Office is nearly ubiquitous in office settings these days, making its interface the de-facto standard for how office suites operate.
 
Office 2013 keeps the ribbon toolbar interface first introduced to some controversy in Office 2007, with slight modifications that include returning the File menu to the tool bar to make it easier for users to find the controls to open and save documents. The pretty, modern interface lends additional polish.
 
OpenOffice and LibreOffice, on the other hand, lack the ribbon toolbar and instead offer a more traditional interface—which makes them intriguing options for Office 2003’s steadfast supporters. Anyone who has used Word or Excel 2003 will feel comfortable using their open source competitors, Write and Calc, while those familiar with newer versions of Office will find it somewhat retro.
 

System Requirements

OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and Microsoft Office 2013 will all work fine on most computers, but if your office machines are significantly older, slower, or less-powerful than the average modern machine, you’ll find OpenOffice and LibreOffice better-suited than Office 2013.
 
For instance, Office 2013 requires a minimum of 1GB RAM for 32-bit computers (2GB for 64-bit machines), while both LibreOffice 4.0 and Open Office 4.0 need just 256MB of RAM—although both recommend 512MB—but need Java installed to take advantage of certain features. Office 2013 also requires Windows 7 or 8 to run fully, while both LibreOffice and OpenOffice will run on older Windows versions, including XP or Vista, and OpenOffice can even run on Windows 2003.
 
In addition, both open source suites will run on most Mac computers running OS X 10.4 (Tiger) or higher—in order to run the new Microsoft Office on a Mac, you’ll need to subscribe to Office 365 Home Premium, a subscriber-based version of Office that offers additional online functionality (for more information read Comparing Microsoft Office 2013 with Office 365). What's more, OpenOffice and LibreOffice will run on a Linux system—and Linux runs much more effectively than Windows 7 or XP on older computers, making Linux and OpenOffice a practical combination even on older computers, especially those that require additional applications (such as those that as you might find in a public computer lab setting).
 

Support

If your IT team is small—or nonexistent—you can expect to need occasional support from other sources. Thanks to Microsoft’s vastness, there's more support for Office than anyone could possibly take advantage of: official support from Microsoft, authorized support from licensed vendors and consultants, professional call centers, as well as dozens of books and countless websites offering tips and guides for modifying, configuring, and using Office software.
 
However, some users report difficulty getting support for Office 2013 as Microsoft appears to be encouraging consumers to switch to the subscription-based Office 365. Some free resources specifically for nonprofits exist, but expect such tailored support to cost more.
 
Support for OpenOffice and LibreOffice is community-driven, and generally free, and includes documentation projects and volunteer-led discussion forums. With these open source projects, common issues and bugs are often addressed through updates. In general, LibreOffice’s development community tends to address these issues more quickly and release updates more frequently than the OpenOffice community. Users more familiar with Microsoft’s ecosystem may find this support model unfamiliar, and may feel more comfortable with training and support for Microsoft Office.
 

Document Sharing

In general, files created by all three suites can be read by the others, though there are caveats.
 
In the case of Office 2013, Microsoft has established de facto file standards such as .DOC and .DOCX for Word documents and .XLS and .XLSX for Excel. If you need to share files with anyone running Office 2003 or older, you may need to convert them to older formats. Microsoft offers a free utility to do this.
 
Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice, on the other hand, use open standards for their native files, but can read and write files using Microsoft's format. In fact, users can choose to automatically save files in .DOC or .DOCX formats by default. The open source community has invested a lot of effort in ensuring that Writer, Calc, and Impress users can share documents with Microsoft users, and has succeeded in all but a few specific cases.
 
If you’ve created Word documents that make extensive use of columns, header formats, and embedded images, the file is likely to show up in Writer with minor formatting issues that have to be adjusted manually. This isn’t likely to be prohibitive for a document or two, but could be time-consuming for a whole library of templates and collateral. However, both OpenOffice and LibreOffice have begun to implement better support for Microsoft file formats—for example, LibreOffice has improved its utility to import .DOCX files to handle more images and formatting.
 
Office 2013 and its open source competitors are also incompatible when it comes to macros or spreadsheet pivot tables—while all three suites support both features (in OpenOffice and LibreOffice, pivot tables are created with a feature called Data Pilot), you will not be able to use macros or pivot tables created in Office 2013 with the open source tools, or vice versa. You may also have minor issues translating charts between the suite’s spreadsheet programs.
 
Interestingly, OpenOffice can open files saved in substantially older versions of Microsoft Office than Office 2013 can—and even some corrupted Word files that Office 2013 can’t open. For an IT department, it might be worth having a copy installed for that reason alone.
 
Finally, all three applications provide the ability to export any file as a PDF, ensuring that viewers see the document exactly as you intended.
 

Remote Access

In Office 2013, Microsoft continues the web collaboration features it introduced in Office 2010, and Office 365—the subscription-model edition—provides even tighter integration with SkyDrive, Microsoft’s online site for file storage, hosting, and suite of web apps, allowing for more portability of documents and the ability to edit documents and access full-featured versions of the tools from any computer. For better or worse, SkyDrive makes it easier to share documents between computers and collaborators.
 
OpenOffice and LibreOffice offer none of these features and operate on a pure desktop model. You can email files to yourself or others or use shared drives, but you can’t edit them directly via the web or collaborate with others in real time.
 

Security

Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice are reasonably secure as long as you follow standard security procedures, including installing updates and patches as soon as they're released and maintaining firewalls, antivirus, and antispyware software. However, while the open source community publicizes possible security issues with both open source tools—allowing users to protect themselves and hackers to potentially exploit issues—Microsoft keeps security issues close to the vest in an effort to prevent hackers from finding out about them.
 
This approach can have the unintended consequence of forestalling the ability of users to take protective measures beyond the standard Microsoft-provided security updates. But generally speaking, with the standards precautions, all three tools are safe.
 

Email Integration

For many folks, one of the big advantages of Office 2013 is its integration with Microsoft Outlook, a software package that provides email and calendaring features, among other things. This integration allows you to send documents directly from Office tools (for instance, you can send a Word document in an email directly from the Word interface) as well as letting you preview Office documents directly in Outlook.
 
Neither OpenOffice or LibreOffice offer similar native email clients, but a number of third-party and open source email solutions do exist (although none provides the same level of integration).
 

Specific Features: A Comparison

Let's get on with it, then—ready for a head-to-head comparison of features? It turns out such a comparison is difficult, primarily because the three suits are so fundamentally similar—for years, they’ve been copying each others’ best enhancements and innovations. Your needs must be pretty complex before you start to find one of them lacking.
 
Grammar Checking. Both Microsoft Word and LibreOffice have built-in grammar-checking tools. The Open Office community has provided a few add-ons that you could install to provide grammar checking, but they’re generally less robust than Word’s default options.
 
Conditional Formatting. All three spreadsheet packages offer conditional formatting—the ability to automatically format cells based on the properties of the data within them—but Microsoft offers a lot more flexibility and control in this realm. On the other hand, OpenOffice and LibreOffice tend to be somewhat simpler to understand, and can output to more useful file formats.
 
Suite-Wide interface. Both OpenOffice and LibreOffice provide a gateway to easily access any of the individual components, while users need to open each Office 2013 application separately.
 
File Size. In general, the native formats of OpenOffice and LibreOffice will create smaller files than Office 2013. When saving files into Microsoft file formats, however—for example, to create files that can be opened in Word—file sizes are similar to Microsoft’s. With increased hard drive capacity, email clients allowing larger attachments, and online storage, file size is less of an issue for most users than it once was.
 
HTML Production. All three tools let users create and edit files in HTML, the coding language behind the web, but purists tend to favor the open source suites’ Writer’s HTML markup to Word's—though few people with knowledge of HTML use any word processing program to produce web pages. For simple tasks, Writer’s Web Wizard makes it incredibly easy to produce web pages incorporating HTML, PDF, and images.
 

Recommendations

Differences, features, prices—you’ve got all the information you need to make a decision. Still looking for a little guidance? We’ll leave you with a few specific scenarios for when one package might work better than another:
  • Your office is happily using donated Microsoft Office licenses. Are you able to get Office 2013 for free or very little money—or even the still quite functional Office 2010? Is your staff happy with it and comfortable using it to get your work done? Then we don't see a lot of upside in changing for the sake of change.
  • Your office is happily using donated Microsoft Office 2003 licenses. In general, your organization probably should no longer be using Office 2003—Microsoft will end support for it, along with Windows XP, on April 8, 2014. Upgrading to Office 2010 or 2013 means adopting the ribbon toolbar interface, a significant change that will require a learning curve and possible training for your staff. OpenOffice and LibreOffice will be more familiar (and completely free), but you’ll miss out on some very advanced features and the ability to seamlessly open highly formatted documents, charts, pivot tables, and macros that up-to-date versions of Office provide. Does your staff actually need these features? Do you have a sizable repository of complex document, spreadsheets, and presentations that you need to frequently open and edit? For instance, it may be challenging to move your accounting staff—which may in fact be creating complex spreadsheets with macros and charts—from Excel to another tool. In this circumstance, it likely makes sense to take a careful look at what your staff is actually doing with Microsoft Office to decide whether to transition to Office 2013, or off of Microsoft entirely.
  • You have a small, technically comfortable staff philosophically aligned with open source tools. If your staff would prefer open source over Microsoft for philosophical reasons and can roll with small changes in interface and less formal support, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are completely viable alternatives that don’t sacrifice productivity.
  • Your staff depends on sharing highly formatted documents or complex Excel functionality. Do you create a lot of highly formatted Word documents, pivot tables, or use a lot of macros? Do you share these files with other organizations? Then it may not make sense to move to LibreOffice or OpenOffice.
  • Your staff needs to share and collaborate on documents online. Neither LibreOffice nor OpenOffice provide online versions of their suites, or the ability for more than one person to edit documents at the same time. While many users may turn to Google Apps in addition to their office suites to approximate this functionality, Microsoft can provide both through Office 365 and SharePoint.
  • You need email and calendaring tools. Microsoft Outlook is included in most editions of Office 2013, while neither LibreOffice nor OpenOffice include an email client—although Mozilla’s Thunderbird and Lightning tools provide open source email and calendar functionality, respectively.
  • You need to provide basic office software on old computers. If you are looking to support only basic functionality and need to use older computers—for a public computer lab, for instance—then a combination of Linux and OpenOffice/LibreOffice is hard to beat.

Wrapping Up

There are strong arguments to be made for Microsoft Office and the open source alternatives alike. All three options are strong platforms that support office productivity. For most nonprofits, the decision for any software should come down more to how well it fits your organization’s needs than following a particular philosophy or business model. You might consider installing two or more office suites to allow users the opportunity to find the tool that works best for them, but for organizations that share a lot of files, you’re likely better off standardizing with a single suite.
 
Are you happy with your existing suite? Then it’s not likely to be worth the time transitioning your entire office to a new one—but if you need to upgrade from an older version of Microsoft Office, you have three solid choices to meet your particular interests.
 
Thanks to TechSoup for the financial support to research and write this article.

Further Reading

Battle of the Office Suites: Microsoft Office and LibreOffice Compared Lifehacker. This post from productivity blog Lifehacker compares Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access head-to-head with LibreOffice’s Writer, Calc, Impress, and Base.
 
Comparing Microsoft Office 2013 to Office 365 Idealware. This Idealware article breaks down the differences between all editions of Microsoft Office 2013.
 

 

License: 
Copyright © Techsoup, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.

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