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LibreOffice : Open Source Office Suite

Whatever you feel about proprietary software, the fact is that almost every Linux user will, sooner or later, have to work with someone who uses Microsoft Office. Fear not: while the compatibility between UbreOffice and its commercial equivalent isn't perfect, it's good and getting better. Using Writer, you can simply open Word files (both DOC and DOCX) and make your edits. However, there are a few areas where compatibility between the two applications isn't seamless, and we will investigate these here. It's important to use the most up-to-date UbreOffice when working with Microsoft file formats because compatibility is increasing with each version.


Most Linux distributions come with a range of open fonts that are roughly equivalent to the fonts on Windows. In most situations, you can change between the two font sets without a problem, but if page layout is critical, small differences between the characters can combine to make a significant difference.

In 1996 Microsoft released a set of free fonts to allow web users to get the same experience regardless of which platform they were using. These included Arial, Times New Roman, and several of the other most common fonts around - collectively known as Core Fonts for the Web.

Under the terms of the license, they can only be distributed in their original files (EXE for Windows or HQX for Apple machines), but the license places no conditions on what systems can use them, so you can install them on a Linux system, but you have to do it from the Windows files. On some distributions there are packages that do this for you (ttf-mscorefonts-installer on Debian and derivatives. and fetchmsttfonts on SUSE); while on others you will have to do it manually following the process on http://corefonts.sourceforge.net.

Online versions of Microsoft Office applications have reduced functionality, particularly when it comes to security and collaboration.

If page layout is critical, you should use these fonts rather than the open ones. Recent versions of Microsoft Office and Windows default to a different set of font families, and these have not been released under the same terms as the core fonts. Switching from these newer fonts to the older ones will allow a consistent layout between operating systems.

Even with the same fonts, formatting remains one of the biggest sticking points for interoperability between the two applications. The differences between the layout of a document in Writer and Word should be small, but if page design is important, lots of small errors can make a big difference. There are a few things you can do to help ensure you get the desired layout on both systems:
  • Save as a PDF file If you're creating a document and you want a Windows user to be able to view it in a certain way - for example, for it to fit on one page - but you don't need them to make any changes to it, you could save it as a PDF file. This ensures consistent layout across all operating systems, but it does make it difficult for the recipients to edit. To export your document as a PDF in Writer go to File> Export as PDF. 
  • Microsoft document viewers If you receive a document in DOC or DOCX format that you need to view or print exactly as its author intended, you can use the document viewers available from Microsoft. The viewers are available for Word. Excel and PowerPoint from www.microsoft.com/download/en/compatibility.aspx?q=compatibility (select Office in Product Category). These will run under an up-to-date version of Wine. After installing the viewers, you will need to install the Microsoft Office Compatibility Pack for Word. Excel and PowerPoint File Formats to allow you to view the most up• to-date file formats (available on the same website. select Tool in Download Type). You can also use these to check that documents you have created with LibreOffice will appear correctly under Microsoft Office. 
  • Microsoft Office Web Apps To make minor changes to a document without changing the formatting as it will appear in Word you can use Microsoft's Office Web Apps. These are online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote available at http://office.microsoft.com/en-gb/web-apps. Accessing them is free, although you will need to sign up for a Microsoft Live ID if you don't already have one. While they don't have all the features of either LibreOffice or their offline counterparts, they do allow you to upload a file you have created in LibreOffice and correct any formatting errors so that it will appear correctly to Windows users. We found that Office Web Apps worked under Chrome and Firefox, but not Konqueroror Epiphany. If you have the Moonlight extension installed, you may have to disable it before accessing Office WebApps. 

To keep formatting consistent across a range of documents, many organizations use templates. While both Word and Writer use these, they use them differently. In Word, templates are a set of styles and a page layout, but in Writer they are just a set of styles. This means that if you use Word templates in Writer, you won't get the full functionality.

Style council

To create a new document in Writer from a Word template, you need to go to File > New> Templates and Documents and navigate to the Template file. This will bring in the styles from the template, and they will appear in the Styles and Formatting box (press F11 to open it). If you have access to a copy of Word, you can convert the template to a regular file. This will allow you to edit the file in UbreOffice and keep the layout from the template. Open the file in Word, and in every place it says Click to Enter Text, enter some text, then save the file. When you open the file in LibreOffice you will now have the styles and layout from the template. Users without access to Word can use Office Web Apps to open the template and view the layout (it won't let you add content). You'll then have to manually create the layout in Writer.

Microsoft Office file viewers, which run under Wine, are available from MS's website.


Macros are one of the biggest problems for organizations thinking of abandoning Microsoft Office in favor of LibreOffice. Put simply, Word macros will not run under Writer. However, the languages used by the two systems are similar and anyone who can write macros in VBA should find the switch to UbreOffice Basic fairly painless.

If you're using a Word document containing macros that you are not running, you can set Writer to save documents with macros intact: go to Tools > Options under Load/Save> VBA Properties and check Save Original Basic Code. This won't help you run the macros in Writer, but it will mean they will still work when the document is opened in Word.

If you have to run VBA macros, then you have to run Word, and there are a few options for doing this. You can run Windows either through Virtual Box or dual boot, or you can get Word to run on Linux using Wine or Crossover Office (not all versions of Word work equally well, check http://appdb.winehq.org or www.codeweavers.com for details).

If you only need to run Word occasionally, you can do it without the expense of purchasing the software outright. No. we're not talking about pirating software, we're talking about using a hosted desktop. A company runs a Windows server and, for a fee, allows you to remotely access Windows software. Currently, most hosted desktop offerings are aimed at businesses, with packages for a large number of units and long subscription periods. Secure Online Desktop (http:/ I secure•od.com), however, lets individual users use the system on a month-by-month basis.

Secure Online Desktop provides access to Microsoft applications for a monthly fee - and it's half price for teachers and students.

To access it, you will need to buy a subscription, and then install the 2XClient (available in Deb. RPM and BZIP2 files from the website). Once installed, you can run the client by typing /opt/2X/Client/bin/2XClient at the command line. This doesn't give you a full desktop, but the ability to run the various office applications remotely. This also lets you access your documents from your smartphone. Unfortunately, this setup doesn't allow you to open documents with Information Rights Management restrictions on them.


Working with users of other systems isn't just about making the document look the same; it's also about helping multiple authors work more efficiently. One of the most basic collaboration tools is the ability to add comments, which are useful when lots of people are working on one document, or when someone reviews a document created by someone else.

The only important difference between the ways the two systems handle comments is that Word adds them to a section of text while Writer adds them to a point of text. Block comments created in Word are displayed by Writer at the final point. To insert comments in Writer, place the cursor where you want it to appear and go to Insert> Comment It's the same in Word, except that you can highlight a section of text before creating the comment.

Both applications also let you highlight sections of text but while Writer can remove highlighting added in Word, highlighting created in Writer isn't treated as such by Word, and so the highlighting tool can't remove it -instead, you have to clear the formatting. In versions of Word earlier than 2007 go to Format > Styles And Formatting, then select Clear Formatting in the Pick Format To Apply list. In Word 2007 and 2010, select the highlighted text, right-click in it, then go to Styles> Clear Formatting. If you're using Linux and want to add highlighting that will work in Word, use Office Web Apps.

Both word processors also allow you to track any changes made to a document. This is best used when the .document is almost finished and only small edits are left, otherwise it can get unwieldy. In Writer, it's a little unstable when working with DOCX files, so save early and often. To turn this on in Writer, go to Edit >Changes> Record. In Word 2003 and earlier this is found at Tools> Track Changes, and in later versions it's in the Review tab. With this enabled, your changes will appear colored and underlined. When you send the file to other users, they will be able to decide which to incorporate into the document by right -clicking on the colored text and selecting Accept Change or Reject Change from the Context menu. Sometimes we found that these options didn't appear in the Context menu. If this happens, place the cursor inside the highlighted text before right-clicking. Some users report that saving documents with changes tracked in DOCX causes LibreOffice to crash. If this happens to you, save the document in RTF format.

Be aware that Writer places comments on a point rather than a block of text.

Comparing and merging documents

Rather than tracking changes, you can make them in a new document and use the Compare Document feature. This brings the changes into the original with the option to accept or reject each one. In our tests, LibreOffice crashed when we did this with DOCX files, so before you star, you may need to convert all the files into another format (DOC. ODT and RTF formats all worked fine). If necessary, you can convert the final file back into DOCX after the merge.

Open the amended document and go to Edit > Compare Document: this will open a window where you can select the original that you wish to merge. LibreOffice will then attempt to isolate any changes and bring them in so you can accept or reject them in the same way as before. Note that you start with the amended document rather than the original - doing it this way round means you Accept changes to add them. If you start with the original, you have to select Reject to add them, which is a little unintuitive. We also found that we got fewer formatting errors starting with the amended document. Edit > Changes > Merge Documents should do this automatically, but failed every time we tried it.

To perform the same operation in Word, start with the original document (that is. the opposite document to Writer) and go to Tools > Compare and Merge.

Writer allows you to save several versions of a document in a single file. You can create and save versions by going to File > Versions. However, it only supports this feature in ODT files, and not in RTF, DOC or DOCX files. If you receive a DOC file w1th different versions in it, and make changes to it. Writer will erase the previous versions when you save it. Word supports this feature in DOC files, but not DOCX. The only workaround for this is to use different files for each version. Microsoft has released a Version Extraction Tool as part of its Office Migration Planning Manager, which converts a single file containing many versions into many files, each containing a single version. However, this tool only runs on Windows and not through either Wine or CrossOver Office.


Helping many users work on a document is great, but sometimes you need to restrict which users can do what. Word has a more advanced set of security features than Writer, and compatibility between the two systems is good, but not perfect. In general, security in DOC files is better supported in LibreOffice than DOCX. The most basic method of protecting a file is adding a password to open it. This works seamlessly with DOC files, but not with the newer format. LibreOffice will open password-protected DOCX files but it cannot save them. If you save a DOCX file that was password protected in Writer, it will save it without password protection.

Both Writer and Word treat read-only DOC files in the same manner, that is, they allow you to open the file to read it, and if you save it to a different file name you can edit it. Writer, however, doesn't recognize the read-only flag on DOCX files and allows you to edit them and save the changes to the original file. This file will still be treated as read-only by Word.

Passworded DOC files let you share information with some security but you should encrypt it for extra protection.

It's also possible to save a file in Word with a Password to Modify. This means that any user can read the file, but only users who know the password can edit it. The behavior of LibreOffice with these files varies. DOC files saved in this way will open as read-only, and you can edit them by saving them as a separate file. DOCX files, however, will open editable with no restrictions. Writer can set a Password to Modify (when saving tick Save with Password. then click Save and in the password box click Advanced), but we found that this didn't work- it caused both Writer and Word to open the file as read-only. In Writer this isn't a problem because you can use the Save As workaround. However Word opens these files in a locked down manner that won't even let you copy and paste the text into a new file.

Word also lets you limit the range of styles users can apply. Files saved like this work differently in Writer depending on the file format. DOC files open as read-only and you have to save them to a different file name before editing them, while DOCX files open normally without restrictions. Writer does not have the facilities to save files with this type of security.

The one aspect of document security that we found no way of working with on Linux was Information Rights Management. Word allows an author to set the document so that only specific people (set by Windows Live username) can open or edit a document. With this set, we found that the file failed to open in LibreOffice, AbiWord, Office Web Apps, or Microsoft products running on Wine or CrossOver Office. This is the one area where the only option is to use Windows or ask the person sending you the file to remove these restrictions.

Other Microsoft Office apps

The lesser-used office applications are more difficult to work with from Linux. Using MDBTools, it is possible to get Base to open older (pre 2007) Access files as read-only, but support is patchy. As part of the 2011 summer of code, Eilidh McAdam is working on an import filter to allow LibreOffice Draw users to open Visio files. By the time you read this, the feature may be in the latest release of LibreOffice. If not. you can access it by compiling the code from Git There are a few open source alternatives to Project that are capable of reading MPP and MPX files such as Openproj and Planner. Publishers PUB files are the hardest of Microsoft's proprietary file formats to open in Linux. To our knowledge, there are no Linux applications that open these files and Publisher doesn’t run well under Wine and only earns a Bronze medal for compatibility in CrossOver Office. There are some online conversion tools that claim to convert these files into more Unix-friendly PDF files. You can access Publisher through Secure Online Desktop.

Calc and Impress

Along with Writer, Calc and Impress form the basis of the LibreOffice Suite. As with Writer, both are able to read and write to the latest file types (XLSX and PPTX) but work better with the earlier versions (XLS and PPT). In LibreOffice version 3.4, the DataPiot function has been improved and renamed Pivot Table to bring it into line with Excel. The two stumbling blocks in Writer also appear in Calc. macros and Information Rights Management. Layout is another source of problems, particularly when using charts or graphs, so it's a good idea to check your files using Excel Viewer or Office Web Apps before sending them to an Excel user. Formatting and layout are often more important when using PowerPoint files. PowerPoint Viewer running under Wine is only able to view PPT, while Office Web Apps is able to open both these and PPTX files. If your web browser supports full screen mode, you can use Office Web Apps to give presentations from PPTX files if the layout under Impress is not perfect.

File formats

Since the first open source word processors were released, their developers have been engaged in a game of cat and mouse with Microsoft over file formats. Once open source developers figured out how to read and write to DOC files. Microsoft abandoned the format. Cynical readers could be forgiven for thinking that the same thing will happen with DOCX. However, DOCX is based on Office Open XML, which is a published standard. The problem for LibreOffice is that its current implementation deviates from the standard. Microsoft has announced its intention to fully support the standard in the next version of Office - which isn't a boon for freedom since it's covered by Microsoft's patents - but it has agreed not to sue firms that use it, so it should lead to greater interoperability between the two office suites.