The biggest blocker to LibreOffice adoption? LibreOffice.

Updated: September 30, 2023

Let me start with a disclaimer. I really like LibreOffice. I use it extensively, and I've written pretty much of all of my books using it, up to the point where I needed to send the materials to my editors, who would only accept DOCX files. Still, I find it useful, valuable and practical, and it does the job reasonably well. But a market leader, it is not. That title is reserved to Microsoft Office, for better or worse.

Every few months, a new version of the LibreOffice suite is released, I test it, and often, I get disappointed and frustrated. Because every new version tells the same story. Average support for the Microsoft Office file formats, ergo uncertain file conversion quality. And so, we go back to square one. Dedoimedo writes his book in LibreOffice, but then must use Microsoft Office for when he wants to talk to the publishers. This needs to change. Step one, LibreOffice should adopt, gasp, the proprietary file formats. Let us elaborate.

Teaser

Practical considerations

I am aware that my opening paragraphs have already triggered a lot of people, and they are likely to miss the message of my article. So, let's start slowly. Let's talk about how things are right now. At the moment, in the year 2023 (and pretty much for the past twenty plus years), Microsoft Office has been the de facto standard for office documents. It does not matter why or how this happened, or whether it's right or wrong, just, fair, or good for the planet. The simple reality is, Microsoft Office is the standard. Repeat after me, it is the standard.

This means that pretty much any business that wants to work with documents will mandate the usage of Microsoft Office formats. To make things worse, even institutions like governments, banks, municipalities and alike will, in many cases, use Office documents, created in Word, Excel or Powerpoint as the standard medium of communication.

This means that people who want to interact with said businesses and institutions will often have to resort to using these types of files, regardless of their technical acumen or ideology.

Before you said, it's wrong, it should change, and ... it doesn't matter. It is what it is. Bear with me.

Okay, so we know the office and document landscape is heavily dominated by Microsoft Office. Therefore, anyone who wants to ensure that whatever they send or receive, write or read, consume, present, or tabulate, must use the proprietary office suite. It is the only way to guarantee that whatever DOCX or PPTX or whatever file you have at hand will open as close to the intended original form as possible. In other words, to use Office files, you need Office.

But ... not really, or really?

Well, practically, you can use other programs to load and open documents generated in Microsoft Office. This is no secret. I've written about this countless times, and this has been focus of all of my LibreOffice reviews (and subsequently, my frustration) in the past decade. You can use software like WPS Office, OnlyOffice, LibreOffice of course, and several other applications to try to utilize Office files. Sounds rather neat, especially if you can use a free tool in lieu of a super-expensive suite.

Seemingly, there should be no problem. Microsoft Office, at least the more recent versions, uses Office Open XML, a zipped, XML-based file format developed, and standardized as ISO/IEC 29500. Of course, there are different versions of XML, just like HTML. Transitional, Strict, boring technical details, yawn. Anyway. TL;DR: there's a standard, things ought to be simple. So you could, theoretically and perhaps even practically, use non-Microsoft software to get the job done!

LibreOffice, Microsoft file format

Different programs offer different levels of support for the OOXML format. This means that you will get different results, depending on what program you use.

Alas, there's only one problem with this approach. There's no 100% guarantee that you will succeed. Let me put it the other way around. There's almost 100% guarantee you will NOT succeed.

You may be able to open certain files, and they may even show up identical to the original, if you're lucky. But ultimately, there will be a document that won't open or render correctly, and worse, if you use non-Microsoft tools to work with these files, you may not even be aware of any potential problems or mishaps in the documents that you use. The easiest problem you can have is that the file won't open or load. A much worse scenario is that the file will open mangled, misaligned or with corrupted data. And if you're a business, can you afford mistakes? Even only 1% of mistakes?

From what I've been able to decipher, no non-Microsoft Office program implements the full specification and follows it to the letter. With LibreOffice, things are a bit trickier.

As a free, open-source suite, a big part of the LibreOffice identity is its non-proprietary nature. This is an ideological component, and while it resonates strongly with many people, it clashes with the simple, cruel pragmatism of business - and the technical implementation of OOXML. LibreOffice wants to give its users support for the Microsoft Office file format, but it does things its own way. On paper, everything is fine. In reality, nope.

Original document

Preview of a random DOCX template from the Microsoft gallery ...

Broken formatting

... and this is what it renders like in LibreOffice. The formatting is utterly broken. Worse, some documents render one way in one version of LibreOffice, then another way a version later. You can never be sure.

I have tested the LibreOffice support for OOXML for countless years, and the results are pretty bad. Often, you won't be able to load documents or templates, and almost always, things will be ever so slightly different visually. A pixel or a line here, a title there. This is the kind of issues that can turn professional work into a joke, ruin someone's business, and, and the end of the day, prevent people from using LibreOffice.

And so, the common user, if they must use LibreOffice + OOXML, faces the following problem:

And this is why people keep using Microsoft Office, even if they would rather not to.

Personal example

I am a good representation of this problem. I have published tons of books professionally, and had to work with various publishers, magazines and such. TL;DR: most of them required Word files for my books. I could argue ideology with them, or I could use Word to generate final drafts and publish my books. What I could not afford was to use LibreOffice and hope my text, images or styling wouldn't be mangled, obscured or ruined. One of the publishers actually used, for whatever practical reason, an Excel file to populate author information. Now, would you risk editing such a file in a not-100%-compatible program, and hope your legally-binding information has been correctly saved?

Impress

The slide creator program in the LibreOffice suite ain't bad.

In parallel, I worked with various artists, for my cover, copyediting, internal design. Some of the artists were able to use open-source tools and programs to get the job done, but more often than not, these professionals in their own respective fields had to use proprietary software, primarily because such tools represent a standard. And for the same reasons, I had to use proprietary software along with them, to make sure we all get the best possible results.

Was I happy that this was/is the technological landscape? No. But I could either live on a mighty tree of ideology or get practical and get things done.

And here, paradoxically, if LibreOffice had 100% support for OOXML, I would have been able to avoid using Microsoft Office altogether!

My journey away from Windows

I have recently started a big adventure. I'm tired of Windows, especially the low-IQ Windows 11, and have decided to try to migrate away to Linux, fully. But I want to make this migration meaningful and effective, in other words, I want to continue to be able to do all of the things I do (in Windows) in my new operating system. After all, functionality is what defines software usage. Indeed, at the beginning of my journey, I mapped all of my different needs, to see which areas would require most investment going from Windows to Linux. Bottom line, it boils down to two cardinal things: games and office suite. That's it.

It's been a year since, and my migration is progressing beautifully. Better than expected really. Linux seems to work great, and even on the gaming front, the results are fantastic. Using the superb Proton compatibility layer in Steam, I have been able pretty much all of my Windows title in Linux with no loss of speed, stability or playability. Amazeballs. But there's one thing that has no parity, no proper solution just yet. And that's the office suite element.

UI chooser

LibreOffice gives you tons of possible UI variants, many of which don't render that well. Even the UI chooser dialog is weird, with cropped text inside a non-resizable window. You can't even properly read the description. The styles do not look like the preview image, and most of them have pretty rough ergonomics.

Tabbed menu, busy

Empty toolbar

Choose Tabbed, and it doesn't look good. Either too busy or too empty.

Yes, I use LibreOffice, yes, I can use Microsoft Office Online. But no, I cannot give up Microsoft Office proper, as I haven't found a way to install and run the suite in Linux. Sure, I tried WINE, I tried PlayOnLinux, I tried winetricks, no luck. The only solution that I see is to install a Windows 7/10 virtual machine, install Microsoft Office 2010 in it, use the whole thing entirely offline, without a network connection, and that's it. Is this LibreOffice's fault? No, not really. But if LibreOffice could magically open OOXML files with 100% fidelity, I would need not bother with Microsoft Office at all! In a bizarre way, the "reason" I still need to use the proprietary suite is because my preferred open-source, free suite does not fully satisfy my requirements.

Conclusion

I'd love to see LibreOffice grow and explode and become #1 office suite out there. With a free price tag, it could easily do that. But, it first needs to provide the required functionality, and today, it stubbornly refused to that, for ideological reasons. Unfortunately, most people are pragmatic and entirely clueless when it comes to software licensing, so if there's a program that does the job, it could have been written by the Hanseatic Republic, for all they care. Microsoft Office format compatibility is a huge part of the adoption equation. Probably the biggest.

But that's not all. LibreOffice also needs to amp its game across the board. The UI isn't consistent enough, and with too many possible styles, it suffers from over-maintenance. Writer gets most of the attention and care, but it still isn't as optimized as it could be. Calc is just as not as good as Excel, period, formats notwithstanding. Impress is okay for making presentations, but in general, that's a less critical problem. And that's about where we are right now. For years now, I've been waiting for LibreOffice to spread its wings and shine, and like many other prominent open-source projects, and most Linux distros, it seems stuck in that underdog mentality, the super-nice amateur not-so-nice professional cross-section. It baffles and saddens me. Because the opportunity is huge, and I'm terrified by the time LibreOffice finally reacts, it will be too late. Well, one can hope it will be different this time. Ironically, for LibreOffice to be the champion of free it needs to be, ever so slightly, just a little bit, less libre.

Cheers.