LibreOffice 4.0 ships with new features, better looks
Slowly closing the gap with Microsoft Office
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.
What's next after 4.0?
Meeks said that although the LibreOffice developers have been doing lots of QA and unit testing to ensure that the project's code is of high quality, a few minor glitches are always likely to crop up in any major LibreOffice release.
"At least in the free software community, it's relatively expected that there may be a few bugs and rough edges we haven't managed to iron out yet," Meeks told El Reg. "If you're a conservative business user, you should probably be waiting until the 4.02 or 4.03 release – or even better, paying for a commercially supported release that's even more hardened."
LibreOffice operates on a timed release schedule, where a new major point-release ships every six months. In between major releases, a minor point release appears roughly every month – so the more production-ready version of the suite, LibreOffice 4.02, should arrive in two months.
Meeks explained that LibreOffice releases are timed to go out a couple of months before the major Linux distributions ship their new versions, so that LibreOffice 4.02 will likely be the first build of the new version of the suite to ship with Fedora or Ubuntu.
Of course, customers who like to live on the bleeding edge are always welcome to download  LibreOffice 4.0 now. Bug reports from those intrepid souls will be particularly appreciated.
And then there's always the future to consider. The Document Foundation has been talking about online and mobile versions of LibreOffice for some time , but although Meeks says these things exist and are still being developed, they still have a way to go before they are ready for wide distribution.
"Fitting into the 50MB limit for the Android app store is a bit of a problem with the whole office suite, even when we start ripping out the UI base code," Meeks said, though he added that the effort gave the LibreOffice developers an incentive to try to shrink down the code, which is good in itself.
Meeks also said that work is being done on a version of LibreOffice that can be streamed from a server and run from inside a web browser window, with broadly identical functionality to the desktop version, though he said this is only at the prototype stage at the moment.
As for developing a complete, integrated suite of office applications and online services, however – the way Microsoft is doing with its Office 365  offering, for example – the Document Foundation's Vignoli says the opportunity is wide-open ... for someone else.
"We do not see The Document Foundation offering the complete solution, as this would be a departure from our objectives," Vignoli told The Reg in an email. "Companies such as large software vendors or ISPs would be able to pick up the different pieces and build the complete solution, provided they accept to become good community players such as Red Hat and SUSE, and give back a portion of their income by paying developers or giving money to support the project."
Neither was Meeks willing to compare the direction of LibreOffice to that of OpenOffice.org, the parallel project now being maintained by the Apache Foundation. Apache promoted its version of the suite to a top-level project  in October 2012, but we've heard relatively little of that effort since.
"I don't think there's any great interest in comparing ourselves to Apache, generally," Meeks said. "I think the vast majority of the market is in Microsoft's camp, pretty firmly. We're growing our feature set and our user base pretty vigorously. We're pretty happy with where we are. So I just don't think we need to measure ourselves against anyone except the major competitor." ®