In the coming weeks I hope to start volunteering for a small organization as treasurer, a position that involves some data analysis and display. In my previous day job, I became adept at analyzing and displaying data using various software packages, but particularly good at doing so in Microsoft Excel. I don’t own a copy of Excel for my personal computer, so I thought about purchasing one for this volunteer work. But I recently came across an open source software suite called LibreOffice that I’ll use instead. It’s terrific, it’s free, and it does most of what Microsoft Office does, so let me tell you about it.
LibreOffice is a suite of office programs, just like the Microsoft Office suite, and includes a word processor (like Word), a spreadsheet program (like Excel), a program to create presentations (like PowerPoint), and several other programs. The suite is open source, allowing anyone to contribute to it. Many people do contribute to LibreOffice and that results in frequent updates to the entire suite, improving features, adding new features, and fixing bugs.
By default, LibreOffice uses open document formats, which are designed to standardize the data format for office documents, much like PDF has done for documents that don’t need to be edited. Right now, most people exchange documents using Microsoft’s formats, such as .doc, .docx, and .xlsx. While most people use software that can open these formats, files stored in these formats don’t display in the same way in all programs. For instance, Apple’s Pages does not display Word files (.docx) in the exact same way that Microsoft Office does. If you’ve encountered this problem before, you know it can be frustrating to deal with and take up needless time. The open document format aims to address this problem, so it’s a great cause that I love to support. The open document formats aren’t widespread yet, but fortunately LibreOffice supports all the other document formats I can think of as well.
For this volunteering project I’ll be using LibreOffice’s spreadsheet program Calc. Its interface isn’t as polished as Excel’s—that’s something for the LibreOffice team to work on. It’s generally easy to find your way around, though. It will probably take me a while to become just as efficient in Calc as I am in Excel, because Calc has different keyboard shortcuts and because its menus are organized differently. Fortunately, for this project I have the time to learn to use Calc.
Then again, I would have had to spend some time re-learning Excel too. You see, at my previous job I had a PC, but I use a MacBook at home. Microsoft Office does exist for OS X, but I’ve always found it more difficult to use and less stable than Microsoft Office for Windows. LibreOffice doesn’t have that problem because it’s the same on Windows, OS X, and Linux.
There are other free office suites out there, of course. Maybe your Mac came with iWork installed, or maybe you like using Google Docs and its siblings. But if you like using a traditional office suite and you like your software free, open source, and available cross-platform, give LibreOffice a shot!