LibreOffice vs OpenOffice: what’s the difference?

Posted by Greten on 19 Apr 2013 under Tools

In my several previous articles about spreadsheet problem generator and formatting cell data in Calc, you will frequently encounter the string "LibreOffice / OpenOffice Calc", and as things stand today, it's likely that you will also encounter lots of "LibreOffice / OpenOffice Writer", "LibreOffice / OpenOffice Math" and "LibreOffice / OpenOffice Impress" in my future posts.

Motivation for having both OpenOffice and LibreOffice

Prior to my jump in using free and open source software (FOSS) programs exclusively, I've been using OpenOffice since 2003 even though during that time, I don't like it and I find MS Office 2003 to be more convenient. However, I noticed that as years passes by, OpenOfffice suites are becoming better. Meanwhile, MS Office switches to that abomination called ribbon interface. This made OpenOffice and MS Office 2003 look more similar to each other as compare to MS Office 2007.

Logos of OpenOffice and LibreOfficeI had Ubuntu OS installed in my computer as I'm foreseeing that it would be best to use FOSS in the future. When I updated my Ubuntu to Natty Narwhal, the OpenOffice disappeared and this new thing called LibreOffice had taken its place. It has suites with exact names as those in OpenOffice: Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Base and Math. I conducted a little research to know what's this LibreOffice and its connection to OpenOffice. They are two different office suites, but very much similar. What I found-out in this "little research"? It is in the section.

They are both free and open source software programs and that means I have to cover them both. However, in most functions they are so similar that I might as well write only one article about something that you can do on both of them, instead of having two articles about that something with one for each of them.

They are so similar that despite having different brand names, each "subprogram" has the same name. The word processors, spreadsheets, slide programs, drawing programs, equation editors and database programs are both called Writer, Calc, Impress, Draw, Math and Base respectively. Hence, there's OpenOffice Calc and there's LibreOffice Calc. I tested all those functions and formatting that I used in spreadsheet problem generators on both and they are working in exactly the same manner. So far, I haven't encountered any difference on how they work but if there are any, I will document it in the article in which it was used.

Why LibreOffice and OpenOffice are so similar?

The short answer is that LibreOffice is a fork of OpenOffice.

Meaning, a group of programmers took the OpenOffice source codes, implemented their own improvements and renamed it LibreOffice. This is one of the perks of FOSS. If you have enough programming knowledge you can make your own office suite program using either OpenOffice or LibreOffice.

This group, however, is not just a group of any programmers. Most of them are in fact involve in the creation of OpenOffice itself.

Back in late 1990s, a company named Sun Microsystems acquired StarOffice, an office productivity suit from a German software company StarDivision. Sun Microsystems then decided to "donate" the codes of StarOffice to open source community by inviting programmers to work on it and they renamed it "OpenOffice". Basically, the programmers invited are not paid but they are doing a great service because they are working on a software that is being given away for free. Sun Microsystems retained the name StarOffice to their proprietary version; which means they took the OpenOffice, add some further improvements and then sell it. That was a nice business strategy: having a bunch of programmers working for you for free but on the condition that you will keep two versions of the software, a free version and a paid version.

With Sun Microsystems as the main sponsor, other companies also contributed to OpenOffice like IBM and Novell. These two also started their own forks: Lotus Symphony from IBM and Go-oo from Novell. Basically, people have been creating OpenOffice fork way before LibreOffice came into existence. The license of OpenOffice really allows for these sort of things to be done legally.

When Sun Microsystems was acquired by Oracle in year 2010, all the software programs of Sun became properties of Oracle. The "stewardship" of Sun's open source projects also went to Oracle. Stewardship is the right term here because Sun and later Oracle do not legally own them. Why would a group of programmers agree to work for free unless they are giving something to the community?

Oracle, however, has considerable control on how and when these FOSS programs are released. For example, Oracle dictated that new versions of Open Solaris will be released only after the new version of proprietary version of Solaris is released.

Thus, most of these programmers, many of whom forming the core group that developed the OpenOffice decided to start their own organization called The Document Foundation. As a non-profit organization, The Document Foundation forked OpenOffice (that is, they took the source code and implemented their own improvements and bug fixes) and renamed it LibreOffice. The name LibreOffice was originally intended to be temporary. The Document Foundation invited Oracle to join them and requested that they donate the OpenOffice brand name. The whole plan is to eventually merge back OpenOffice and LibreOffice, with OpenOffice as the brand name but under the control of a non-profit organization instead of a for-profit corporation.

Some of those who joined The Document Foundation are also working on OpenOffice by that time. When Oracle received the invitation, their respond is to ask those who are working on both OpenOffice and The Document Foundation to step down from OpenOffice due to conflict of interest.

In essence, the programmers who are now working on LibreOffice are the same ones who use to work in OpenOffice. It's like you formed a band with your friends. Then later, you decided to leave your current talent manager, but your contract stipulates that this manager own the name of your band. So you just left, and formed a new band with a new name. You didn't really form a new band because it's the same old members, just under different name.

Oracle eventually donated OpenOffice, both the brand name and the source code to The Apache Software Foundation. OpenOffice still ended up with a non-profit organization. It's just that it has no prior involvement with OpenOffice. Without the backing of its original open source programmers, it seems that Oracle just decided to accept defeat but does not want to give The Document Foundation absolute victory.

As of now, Apache and The Document Foundation do not seem to be in good terms, competing in market share as well as with allies that they can get. IBM, Novell, Red Hat and Canonical are some of the companies that contributed to the development of OpenOffice when it was with Sun Microsystems. Now, IBM is siding with Apache, having donated the codes of their Lotus Symphony to Apache to improve OpenOffice.

Meanwhile, the other three mentioned sided with LibreOffice. Novell donated it's Go-oo codes to LibreOffice, while Red Hat and Canonical, being major Linux distributors, replaced the OpenOffice that comes with their Linux installations with LibreOffice. This is how I get to know LibreOffice. Canonical is the developer of Ubuntu, and when I upgraded my Ubuntu to Natty Narwhal, the OpenOffice is gone, having replaced with LibreOffice.


OpenOffice and LibreOffice are very similar because they are the same thing to the core. Most of their differences are merely aesthetics and bugs that are not frequently encountered even though the differences are likely to increase gradually in the future. While these two tend to have some sort of war, I am advocating the use of free and open source software programs in educational setting, and not the use of any particular FOSS. As for now, I don't see one as being better than the other as far as education-related uses are concerned so I might as well given them equal consideration. I would probably drop one of them eventually, but I could not tell now which one it should be.


Last updated on 04 May 2013.

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