Just over eight months after its last major release, the LibreOffice project has unveiled version 3.5.0 of its open source, cross-platform office suite. The enhancements are
numerous, with improvements touching each of the major application
components, along with several brand new features. The project has been busy in
other respects over the past few months as well, incorporating a
foundation, launching a new support service, and exploring post-desktop
As always, the new LibreOffice builds are available in 32-bit and 64-bit flavors for Linux, packaged in Debian or RPM format, in addition to bundles for Windows and Mac OS X. According to the release notes, 3.5.0 is unchanged from RC3, so bleeding-edge types may not need to upgrade. There are a few warnings in the notes as well, most notably that Windows users cannot upgrade directly from 3.4.5 (so they must uninstall 3.4.5 first), and that Linux users are strongly encouraged to use OpenJDK instead of GCJ.
Users should also expect some difficultly with Microsoft Office 2010 not recognizing some of the new features in Open Document Format (ODF) 1.2 that are now implemented in LibreOffice for the first time. If all of those caveats do not scare you off, however, there is much to see in the new release.
LibreOffice underwent an extensive cleanup in the 3.5 development cycle; Michael Meeks noted the removal of more than 3,000 unused methods between July and December 2011. The subsequently leaner-and-meaner code base adds a few new suite-wide features worth mentioning, starting with support for Java 7 (although Java 6 is still supported as well, for backward compatibility).
The updater and extension manager have been made more user-friendly, allowing users to configure how frequently LibreOffice should check for new releases, and letting users sort extensions by their origin (i.e., those bundled with LibreOffice versus those installed by the user). There are several important UI changes, including clearer alert messages when a user tries to save a file in a format that will lose formatting information, and an easier-to-understand "more" indicator for when the toolbar menu is too small to display all of the buttons.
At the lower levels, password-protected ODF files are now encrypted by
AES-256, replacing the weaker Blowfish cipher used in previous versions.
LibreOffice now also incorporates the ttfautohint font hinting
engine (which we looked at in
November), which will improve rendering quality, particularly on Windows.
Also on the text handling front, LibreOffice supports SIL International's Graphite font
format, and ships with Graphite versions of the Libertine font family, which
include a number of new typesetting features [PDF] in the latest update.
Finally, the Base database front-end (which can be used by the other components in the office suite) now includes native drivers for PostgreSQL. 3.5.0 supports versions of Postgres up through 8.3; support for 8.4 and newer is slated to arrive with LibreOffice 3.5.1.
Easily the most talked-about new feature in 3.5.0 is the integration of a grammar checker into the Writer word processing component. There have been several grammar-checking extensions in the past (and those are still installable), but this is the first such built-in tool. The grammar checker is called LightProof, and it supports English, Hungarian, and Russian.
There is an extensive look at LightProof's functionality on developer László Németh's blog. There he discusses the philosophy employed to hopefully make LightProof more useful and less annoying — a shortcoming that he said leads many users to disable grammar checking in Microsoft Office and other products. The gist is to not try and do too much, limit "false positives," and allow user-control over the options. The rules that the grammar checker uses are configurable, and each rule is linked to a detailed explanation for educational purposes.
Smaller UI improvements include a nicer page-break indicator and a
revamped interface for creating and modifying headers and footers. Both
are editable using an on-canvas drop-down menu, rather than having settings
buried in the menus. You can now toggle the display of non-printing
characters (such as paragraph breaks), which should help when hunting down
white space problems or formatting issues. The word-count tool, which in previous releases needed to be manually re-executed to update its numbers, is now "modeless" and maintains a live count of the documents words as you work.
There are also lots of smaller improvements to layout issues (such as how to handle tab stops that extend past the outside margins of the page), and internationalization improvements (such as support for using Arabic letters or Persian words as the "numbers" in ordered lists). Last but not least, when Writer automatically generates a table of contents (TOC) for a document, it can now hyperlink the TOC entries to the correct place in the body of the text.
The Calc spreadsheet also picks up some new features and UI
improvements. At the purely functional level, Calc got several new
functions, including the trigonometric functions secant and cosecant (along with
analogs) and basic bitwise operations. The new version of Calc also
allows for an unlimited number of user-defined rules for conditional
formatting (e.g., changing the text style or background color of a cell based on particular criteria). There is still an upper limit on the number of individual sheets that a Calc spreadsheet document can contain, but 3.5.0 bumps that limit up to 10,000.
The interface changes include a multi-line input box for entering cell data. This is a change from the traditional one-line input bar most users are accustomed to, but it makes for an easier time entering formulas or long text strings in a spreadsheet. Graphs and charts should look better in 3.5.0, with the addition of several more point-marker styles (the dots rendered for data points in a scatterplot or line graph), and several fixes to the line-drawing code. Apparently, in previous releases, it was possible for a line that was intended to connect several data points to end up only touching the beginning and end points; the new B-spline code fixes that problem and results in smoother-looking lines all around.
Finally, an import bug-fix lands in the new release, in which Calc now gracefully handles the situation when a cell or formula's data comes from an external source (such as a database), but the external source is unreachable or unreadable. In previous releases, this resulted in errors that cascaded through the spreadsheet's calculations; instead, now the old value of the cell is used and an alert is triggered to tell the user that the external source is irretrievable.
Draw, Impress, and Math
The other components in the suite have shorter new-feature lists in
3.5.0, but some of the enhancements are significant. For example, the Draw
vector editor gains the ability to import Microsoft Visio files, and picks
up several new styles of line-ending "arrowheads" — including several
that are designed to work with Unified
Modeling Language (UML) diagrams. Draw can also embed several types of
swatch palettes, which includes color palettes and the less-frequently seen
gradient or fill palettes. That allows a single change to one of the
palettes to alter colors, gradients, and fills throughout a large document.
The LibreOffice version of the Impress presentation application includes
the "presenter console" feature that had been an optional extension in
OpenOffice.org — though one that most Linux distributions had included for
quite some time. This feature lets a user drive a connected
projector in the usual manner while keeping his or her accompanying notes
visible (or the next slide to be shown) on the
screen of the laptop or PC. Unfortunately Impress can get
confused sometimes about the displays, which can transpose the screen that
is showing the slides and the one showing the notes; 3.5.0 adds a handy screen-swapper button so users can correct the problem at presentation time with a single click. Impress also makes launching the new-presentation-wizard at start-up time optional, and picks up improvements to importing vector shapes and "Smart Art" graphics from Microsoft PowerPoint files.
Math, the LibreOffice formula editor, gains the ability to both import and export expressions from Microsoft's Office Open XML (a.k.a. DOCX) format. It also acquires a few new symbols, such as the impressively-named "negated existential quantifier" (better known as the "does not exist" symbol ∄), and a set of symbols used in game theory.
Still to come
In addition to all of the work that went into the LibreOffice 3.5.0 code itself, the project has been busy on several other fronts in the past few months. On February 1, it legally incorporated its governing organization The Document Foundation as a community-driven nonprofit foundation based in Germany. Deputy Chairman of the Board Thorsten Behrens described the move as a legal affirmation of the project's community spirit, "independent from any single vendor.”
The project also launched a StackOverflow-style community-support site named Ask LibreOffice, which offers a vote-driven way for users to find answers to their questions. The site runs on the open source Askbot web application.
Development continued in new directions, too. A GTK+3 port is underway for Linux, which is an important milestone in its own right, but also clears the path for a web-based LibreOffice interface somewhere down the line, thanks to GTK+3's HTML5 back-end. Work is also underway to port LibreOffice to Android and Apple's iOS. Both mobile OSes are increasingly popular in the workplace on tablets, so there is a case to be made that these new ports are as important (if not more so) as the traditional desktop targets.
Neither the HTML5 nor mobile OS ports of LibreOffice made it to stable status for the release of 3.5.0, however. Meeks told FOSDEM that he is hopeful an online version of LibreOffice will be stable by the end of 2012, and that at least an ODF document reader will be available soon for Android, if not a complete LibreOffice suite. For a project as hefty as LibreOffice, that is a brisk pace, but the past year has shown The Document Foundation and its development community capable of working at a rapid clip — as 3.5.0 demonstrates.
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