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LibreOffice makes its case as open source alternative to MS Office

Newest release of open source suite comes as LibreOffice now claims 80 million active users around the world.

LibreOffice looks to make more headway against MS Office LibreOffice

After a headline lull, LibreOffice on Wednesday renewed its drive to replace Microsoft Office with the newest version of its open source suite of applications.

The latest update comes as the organization behind LibreOffice says that its products are now being used by some 80 million users around the world. In contrast, only 10 million users had downloaded the software by Sept. 2011.

LibreOffice came about as part of a grass roots response to tech industry consolidation. In 2010, Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems, which was then responsible for an open-source software suite called OpenOffice. However, developers who became unhappy with Oracle's stewardship of the project, subsequently forked the code to create a new office suite called LibreOffice. The OpenOffice project has since been taken up by the Apache Foundation while LibreOffice wound up under the auspices of The Document Foundation.

Executives from The Document Foundation expressed confidence about getting 200 million active users worldwide before the end of the decade. Italo Vignoli, one of the founders of The Document Foundation, also expressed hope that a decision governing the use of open source software by the UK government will prove to be a harbinger of more rapid adoption.

Earlier this week, the United Kingdom finally put in practice a directive that all official office suites must support an open format for documents called ODF. Government officials say the move to standardize around open formats will reduce costs associated with the Office suite and break what they describe as the 'oligopoly' of IT suppliers. (Or at least one supplier in particular. Wink, wink.)

The thrust of the UK announcement will be to let users choose open-source office suites, should they wish. Vignoli is hoping that will help the organization build on earlier successes winning over other European governments. For instance, the French government has already deployed LibreOffice on about a half million computers while Spain's Valencia region has installed the program on 120,000 desktops.

"Our compatibility with legacy Microsoft Office documents and actually Microsoft Office docs is now extremely good," Vignoli said. He added that developers have cleaned up the code base from the first four releases of the product and that only 130 of the 10,000 documents used in compatability testing of the latest incarnation of the product with MS Office broke.

The question is whether that will be enough to reel in MS Office users of long standing. Even though the competition with Microsoft Office reaches back several years, Office continues to have a strong hold with businesses as the competition has moved to the cloud. Part of the challenge is the message -- on in this case, making that message resonate.

"The Open Source community has always had a problem with marketing," Vignoli said. "I think it was a fundamental mistake because if you talk to developers, they'll tell you that if the product is good, then you don't need marketing. But that's the most absurd thing you can say. You need marketing for every product. Even if you don't use marketing, you need a strategy on how to bring the product to must make the user aware that you're product is there."

It wasn't simply inattention to marketing. A lot of the debate centered around the adoption of open standards. At the time, the Open Document Format (ODF) was the only one available. Microsoft subsequently got the standards bodies to bless its OfficeOpenXML while also agreeing to let ODF documents get read and saved in Office.

But out of sight is not out of mind. For LibreOffice supporters, a revamped product with a cleaned up code base is a winning hand.

"So many people in US corporations say they want to break free from the shackles of Microsoft Officebut it's hard to break free from the shackles because 800 billion documents sit in Microsoft docs," said Jay Zaveri, the product vice president at CloudOn and Open Libre evangelist. "We believe the work we've done has significantly narrowed the compatibility gap."