The Document Foundation has released the latest version of its open source LibreOffice application suite, which has been given a reworked user interface and support for common file storage services. It also offers improved file compatibility and code stability for business users.
Available to download immediately, LibreOffice 5.1 is the latest release of the software that was developed as a fork of the OpenOffice.org suite after Oracle acquired Sun Microsystems. It has largely displaced OpenOffice in desktop Linux distributions from the likes of Red Hat and Suse.
The most visible changes in this release are to the menu system, which has been redesigned in the Writer, Calc and Impress apps to make it easier and more straightforward to access the main features of each one, according to Italo Vignoli, spokesperson for the Document Foundation and one of its founder members.
"One menu has been added to each of the three main applications to make it easier for users, so there is a Style menu in Writer, consolidating every style feature in a single menu; in Calc it's the Sheet menu with every cell or sheet-related command; and Impress has every slide-related command for presentations in a single menu," Vignoli said.
However, one significant new feature is support for direct access to common file storage services, initially comprising Google Drive, SharePoint and Alfresco.
Once correctly configured, this allows users to read and write to the remote file service as easily as if it were a local drive. This capability was added in response to requests from large organisations that have deployed LibreOffice, Vignoli said, in order to better support collaborative working.
Other enhancements include changes to the formula engine in the Calc spreadsheet app that remove restrictions on table structure references in cells. This change makes for better interoperability with other tools, particularly Microsoft Excel.
In fact, a great deal of work has gone into making LibreOffice 5.1 as compatible as possible with the Office Open XML file formats used in Microsoft Office, Vignoli said, although this has been hampered by the fact that the file formats have evolved over several versions of Microsoft Office.
"Basically, there is a slightly different format of the DOCX, PPTX and XLSX files for each version of Microsoft Office, and this makes it difficult to ensure interoperability because we are targeting a moving standard," he explained.
The Document Foundation tests compatibility with a sample file set of 10,000 documents, and every new version of LibreOffice includes incremental changes as the developers work to improve it. But Vignoli said that "there will always be some documents that will not translate with 100 percent fidelity".
LibreOffice has now adopted a six-month cycle for major releases in line with other open source projects such as OpenStack and Canonical's Ubuntu Linux. This is to provide large customers with a predictable release schedule for planning migrations, but means that releases may not include a huge number of updates.
The LibreOffice developers have focused on code quality and stability, and the new release averages between 0 and 0.1 defects per thousand lines of code, Vignoli claimed, far lower than other open source projects. This is important for enterprises because fewer defects means that LibreOffice presents fewer opportunities for malware to target the software, he said.
However, LibreOffice does not recommend that large customers switch to 5.1 immediately, as versions 5.0.4 and 5.0.5 are regarded as the stable releases.
As with the previous LibreOffice 5.0, the new release is almost entirely based on modern code that replaces the legacy code inherited from Oracle. Many of the releases between 3.x and 5.x were focused on code cleaning and refactoring rather than adding new features.
Alongside LibreOffice for Windows/Mac/Linux, the Document Foundation still plans to introduce mobile versions of LibreOffice for Android and Apple iOS devices, but these are not likely to be delivered until 2017, Vignoli said.
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