LibreOffice vs. Microsoft Office: Can Libre Really Replace Microsoft?

LibreOffice and Microsoft Office are two of the most widely used office productivity suites. Microsoft Office has long dominated the market, but the free and open-source LibreOffice has emerged as a potential alternative for some users. This article examines whether LibreOffice provides enough capability to truly replace Microsoft Office.

Brief History

Microsoft Office first launched in 1990, offering a bundled suite of productivity applications including Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Over three decades of development, Office has become an essential productivity suite for business and personal users.

LibreOffice has a more recent history. It was forked from OpenOffice.org in 2010 by The Document Foundation and quickly gained popularity as a free and open alternative to Microsoft Office. The "libre" name refers to the suite being free/liberty software focused on user freedom and privacy. Today, LibreOffice sees approximately 200 million downloads per year and has a strong global community contributing to its development.

Pricing and Licensing

One of the biggest differences between the suites is pricing and licensing. LibreOffice is available entirely for free, including for commercial/business use. Users can download, distribute and modify the software as they see fit.

In contrast, Microsoft Office requires paid licenses, either via one-time "perpetual" licenses or via subscription to Microsoft 365 (formerly Office 365). Home users can currently subscribe to Microsoft 365 Personal for $99 per year, while business pricing starts at $150 per user per year for Microsoft 365 Business Premium. These recurring costs can add up over time.

The free price tag gives LibreOffice a significant advantage for cost-conscious users even if its feature set doesn‘t fully match Office. Students, individuals, nonprofit organizations and smaller businesses are prime candidates for saving money through LibreOffice adoption.

Platform Support

LibreOffice supports Windows, macOS and Linux, while Microsoft Office is Windows and macOS only. For Linux users especially, LibreOffice provides an office suite alternative as Microsoft Office is not available. Even some macOS users have opted for LibreOffice as a cost-free option if they don‘t need the most advanced Office features.

For businesses standardized on Windows, however, platform support likely won‘t be a key factor in decision making. But for organizations with a mix of operating systems, LibreOffice offers more flexibility.

Feature and Application Comparison

Both LibreOffice and Microsoft Office contain word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, and other productivity apps for common business and personal tasks. But Microsoft Office generally has more features and polish than LibreOffice.

Word Processing

The LibreOffice Writer and Microsoft Word word processing applications are fairly comparable for basic document creation. They share standard features like fonts, formatting, spell check, and grammar tools.

Writer can open .doc and .docx files with fairly good fidelity to the original formatting. It may struggle, however, with certain fonts, macros, complex layouts and newer Word features. Choosing the OpenDocument (.odt) format has maximum compatibility with Writer.

While Writer includes plenty of features for most users‘ needs, power Word users may miss some specialty features like mail merge linking to external databases, collaboration via tracked changes, and advanced layout options for newsletters and other complex document types.

Spreadsheets

The Calc spreadsheet app again includes the majority of functionality an average user may need like cell formatting, formulas, pivot tables, etc. It can reliably open basic .xlsx files but can encounter issues importing files that use proprietary Excel formulas. And the enormous breadth and depth of advanced features in Excel (e.g. forecasting tools) outpace Calc‘s capabilities.

Calc may meet many users‘ basic number crunching and data analysis needs, but power Excel users have many more tools available, especially around visualization and reporting. And Excel has stronger capabilities around importing data from external sources.

Presentations

LibreOffice Impress provides all the same general functionality one would expect from Microsoft PowerPoint—themes, templates, animations, slide transitions, etc. Impress can open basic .pptx files, but doesn‘t always maintain precise formatting, transitions or embedded media.

Power users may miss some advanced effects, transitions, collaboration features and presentation tools available only in PowerPoint. But Impress meets most basic presentation needs for personal, education or business purposes without issue.

Additional Apps

LibreOffice includes several additional apps (Draw, Base, Math, etc.) but the suite doesn‘t have an exact analog for every Microsoft offering. For example, LibreOffice doesn‘t include an email and calendar client like Outlook or a note taking tool like OneNote. Of course both suites offer interoperability with third-party tools as well.

Overall the breadth of available apps provides Microsoft Office with an advantage, especially for enterprise customers who leverage the full suite. But many average users can accomplish their essential tasks perfectly well with LibreOffice‘s Writer, Calc and Impress apps.

File Compatibility

LibreOffice does a generally good job opening Microsoft Office document formats like .docx, .xlsx and .pptx. In many cases formatting, images and text copy over seamlessly during export from Office to LibreOffice. But certain objects, effects or complex layouts can present issues depending on the file.

Similarly, while LibreOffice can save to Microsoft file formats, the reverse compatibility opening these documents in Microsoft Office is not always perfect. Some formatting changes may occur or features not supported by LibreOffice apps could be lost moving files back to Office.

So users willing to commit their personal files or company documents to LibreOffice‘s native OpenDocument format (.odt, .ods. .odp) will have best results. Those needing extensive back-and-forth file compatibility with partners or customers using Microsoft Office products may encounter occasional formatting or interoperability issues.

User Support and Assistance

Given Microsoft Office‘s status as the market leading productivity suite for decades, customer support channels and self-help documentation resources are extensive. Between detailed help articles, user forums monitored by Microsoft staff and direct phone/chat support options, most questions or issues can be readily addressed for Office users encountering problems.

The community around LibreOffice is certainly active in providing tips, tricks and troubleshooting advice through wiki articles and user forums. But with no official help desk from the non-profit Document Foundation backing LibreOffice, finding solutions generally requires more independent sleuthing skills. So this aspect in particular may frustrate less tech savvy users trying LibreOffice coming from a Microsoft Office environment.

Power users and IT professionals have plenty of technical resources for both suites. But overall Microsoft Office wins out in terms of hand holding users through setup and assisting problem resolution during use.

Future Development

Microsoft invests tremendous resources into Office 365 and adds new features and apps continually, ensuring it will maintain superiority when it comes to advanced tools, emerging technologies and depth of cross-platform integrations.

But The Document Foundation keeps LibreOffice development marching forward as well. The open source community model allows the suite to quickly build on breakthroughs from cross-pollinating open source projects. And frequent release cycles for LibreOffice allow fast updates for security, compatibility and features.

LibreOffice may not attain full parity with Microsoft Office any time soon due to the magnitude of features Office contains. But LibreOffice closes the gap with each update, adding capabilities most average users will appreciate for personal, student or professional use cases.

Can LibreOffice Truly Replace Microsoft Office?

For many average users, LibreOffice provides sufficient capabilities to get work done without needing to pay Microsoft licensing fees. The suite handles essential productivity tasks like document creation, number crunching and presentation development capably through its free Writer, Calc and Impress apps. Compatibility with Microsoft file formats grants LibreOffice interoperability as well in many environments clinging to Office documents.

However, power users doing intensive work with documents, spreadsheets, visualizations, databases and emails will likely find LibreOffice‘s gaps compared to Microsoft Office impede their efficiency. And the learning curve transitioning fully to LibreOffice instead of Office will frustrate some casual users despite interface similarities between the suites.

So LibreOffice might fully replace Microsoft Office for users and organizations satisfied with "good enough" features at substantial cost savings. But those who need maximum capabilities, performance and seamless compatibility will want to stick with Microsoft Office, despite its perpetual licensing costs.

In summary, LibreOffice deserves consideration by all productivity suite shoppers based on its compelling free price tag for capable features. But only those with basic needs will find it a complete Microsoft Office replacement today, even if the open source project continues closing the gap long-term.

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