Thursday, 14 March 2013

LibreOffice 4 - so what?

I’m sure I am not alone in wanting LibreOffice (or Apache OpenOffice) to flourish. I used OpenOffice for ten years or so and I started using LibreOffice almost as soon as they forked the codebase.

After all this time and with all the effort supposedly directed at making LO or OO properly competitive with MS Office, where are we?

The answer is, not very far beyond OpenOffice circa 5 years ago. The two applications which arguably matter most, Writer and Calc, are still some way behind the competition. Really basic things which have been lacking in Writer are still not fixed; every new release proudly lists ‘features’ and fixes which presumably someone must be waiting for, but none of the basics are tackled.

Now, LibreOffice 4 has arrived, with the usual trumpeting. What do we actually get?  Well to start with, a tarted-up front page on the web site which carries this ridiculous assertion:
“LibreOffice 4 – The free office suite the community has been dreaming of for twelve years.”
Lazy hype of this kind is common enough in promotional material I suppose, but didn't any of the people involved take a step back and realise just how embarrassing this looks?  Twelve years! We've all patiently waited twelve years and this is the best that can be achieved? By all those contributors, in all of that time?  God help us.

A basic feature I have been waiting years for, is draft view (or ‘normal’ view) in Writer. Is it even on the horizon?  I doubt it - all I could find on the LO site was this page, which points to a new bug report with very little history and poor detail. To see the real history, read the OpenOffice issue for this, stretching back to 2002.

I still have a personal copy of Microsoft Office Professional 2003 and it’s installed on this laptop alongside LibreOffice 4.  That’s a ten year old Microsoft product – not quite twelve years I’ll grant you, but close enough in software terms. It outperforms the latest Writer in every significant way. Documents are loaded faster, fonts are rendered better and moving around the document is faster than Writer. And the saddest thing is that I actually prefer Writer in many ways, but some of Writer’s shortcomings just make it too difficult to live with.

LibreOffice 4 claims to have improved interoperability with Microsoft document formats. This is very important for any product which has ambitions to replace Office.  It doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. Here’s a real-world test: I needed to consult part of the DICOM standard (a medical imaging protocol and file-format). The standard can be freely downloaded in Word format from the NEMA site. And this is Word 97-2003 format, not the newer docx format. I downloaded DICOM Part 3 which is a .doc file about 20MB in size, with around 1450 pages. I have a reasonably powerful laptop (Core i5 with 8GB RAM) so opening a 20MB file shouldn't be a problem.

When opening this document in Word (cold start, Word not already running) I can start to use it, scrolling down to the table of contents and through the first few pages, in less than 10 seconds. Word loads the rest of the document in the background. Complete loading of the entire document takes less than 30 seconds.

Opening the same document on the same laptop in LibreOffice 4 Writer takes over 5 minutes.  And I tried this a few times, checking that I wasn't running something else which was hogging CPU or memory, just to make a fair comparison. For those 5 minutes LibreOffice displays “Importing Document…”, before displaying the title page.

You might argue that Writer is dealing with a foreign file format and once imported you could then save to ODT and never have to convert again. So I tried that too. Saving to ODT took almost a full minute. Loading the resulting ODT took almost a minute. Much better than the original conversion time, but still a lot slower than Word 2003. Moreover, you cannot do anything at all with the document in Writer until it is completely loaded – all you see is a grey rectangle.

The worst is yet to come. Most of us will be prepared to wait a bit longer, if the product is free. But most of us will also expect that after waiting, the document will be rendered and paginated correctly and this is where Writer falls down badly. The sample document is not particularly complex but does contain some figures and diagrams, embedded as images. Writer completely fails to display some of these. Below is a screenshot of the same section (7.4) of this document, Writer on the left and Word on the right:

The images for these figures are completely missing in Writer. Scrolling through the document, it appears that few of the embedded images are rendered (see for example the very start of Section 7 – all four figures are missing).

Free or not, that’s not good enough.  I haven’t had to work hard to find these faults: I happened to need this document for something I am working on and just decided to give the latest Writer a shot at opening it. How many more howlers would I find if I spent longer and looked deeper?

This isn't quite a nightmare, but surely it's not what we have all been dreaming of for the last twelve years.