The Pros and Cons of Open Source Office Suites

The Microsoft Office suite — Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote — dominate the productivity software marketplace. But is Microsoft your only option? Open source software is used at many nonprofits for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation design.


OpenOffice and LibreOffice are the two most popular open source alternatives. The two suites have a complicated history — LibreOffice was formed by OpenOffice programmers after OpenOffice was acquired by Oracle — but for the purposes of this article we’re treating them as, more or less, the same. In fact, the tools all share the same names.


Let’s look at the pros and cons of choosing an open source productivity suite.



* The Price Is Right. Open source software is free to download and updates are also free. Compare that to downloading Mircrosoft Office, which can range from $29 for a standard version via TechSoup to $399 retail for Office Professional 2016.

* You Can Customize it. The open source community has created numerous extensions that allow you to add the features you want and leave out anything that might get in your way.

* Backed by a Community. If you like grassroots, people-powered solutions, open source software will feel good. But there are also tangible benefits, the biggest of which is, if you have a question you’ll likely get an answer. Each open source package has its own community forum where you can find the information you need or ask your unique question and get a unique answer.



* Are You Compatible? Most of the world uses Microsoft Office. The good news is you can open nearly all Microsoft documents using your open source software. The bad news is not every document translates perfectly. If the Microsoft document contains a lot of macros or formatting, you’ll likely have to do some fixing or reformatting before you print or share it. (And, you’ll have to live with the likelihood that your formatting will need to be fixed again if it is opened by a Microsoft program.)

* Retro Interface. Users who are most familiar or comfortable with older versions of Word or Excel will feel that the open source interface is a plus, but many usability improvements have not been incorporated and, because of the incremental nature of open source software, a re-visioning of the user experience is not likely. Although, to LibreOffice’s credit, it does now offer a mobile app.

* Community Breakdown. The OpenOffice-LibreOffice split is a potential cautionary tale. What happens if the community of developers running it start feuding? What if they just burn out? Your software might go long stretches without updates, which could open up security risks or slow down your work. Sure, a company can go out of business or change emphasis, even one as large as Microsoft. But many people believe that profit is a more powerful motivator than community spirit.