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LibreOffice 4.0 ships with new features, better looks

Slowly closing the gap with Microsoft Office

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The Document Foundation has announced LibreOffice 4.0, the latest version of the free software competitor to Microsoft Office that spun off from the OpenOffice.org effort in 2010, describing it as nothing less than "the free office suite the community has been dreaming of since 2001."

"LibreOffice 4.0 is the first release that reflects the objectives set by the community at the time of the announcement, in September 2010: a cleaner and leaner code base, an improved set of features, better interoperability, and a more diverse and inclusive ecosystem," the Document Foundation's Italo Vignoli wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.

Among other improvements, version 4.0 is more compatible with Microsoft's Rich Text Format (RTF) and DOCX file formats – the latter being the XML-based Word document format first introduced in Office 2007.

LibreOffice Writer can now import ink annotations from both formats, in addition to supporting a number of new DOCX features, such as floating tables and inline comments.

LibreOffice 4.0 also supports importing Microsoft Publisher documents for the first time, and it can now read all known Visio file formats, including Visio 2013.

"We're trying to become this sort of Swiss Army Knife of file formats," Michael Meeks, who works on LibreOffice at SUSE, explained to El Reg in an interview.

In addition, LibreOffice has added support for the Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) protocol, which allows the office suite to communicate directly with a variety of remote servers, including Alfresco, IBM FileNet P8, Microsoft SharePoint 2010, Nuxeo, and SAP NetWeaver Cloud Service, among others.

Progress has been made on improving the suite's overall UI as well. In particular, work has been done to make dialog boxes look nicer and more consistent across a wide range of languages.

"The previous code was just really horrendous," Meeks said. "Dialogs were constructed and drawn by hand – in fact, not even by hand. Programmers just sort of entered random numbers to lay them out, and it really looked awful."

According to Meeks, LibreOffice 4.0 now includes an automatic layout system that can adapt based on the user's locale and the text that needs to be displayed, to make sure everything is a good fit. He notes, however, that Wednesday's release is really just the beginning of this effort. He estimates that about 100 dialog boxes have been converted to use the new system, with "another 400" to go.

Support for right-to-left languages such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Indic has also been significantly improved, thanks in large part to a team working at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia, which Meeks said has fixed "all sorts of embarrassing and silly bugs."

One handy new feature for presenters is a new Impress Remote Control App, which allows a speaker to control an Impress slide deck using an Android smartphone. Unfortunately, however, this feature still has a few wrinkles that need ironing, so it's currently only available for some Linux distributions. A new version that supports Windows, OS X, and all Linux versions is promised soon.

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