Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice.Org

Microsoft Office vs. OpenOffice.Org

Microsoft Office continues to dominate the productivity software marketplace. However, open-source options such as Apache OpenOffice and the Document Foundation's LibreOffice have emerged — and many users feel they are as good or better than Office.

How do these open-source suites differ from Microsoft Office? Should your nonprofit consider one of them? To help you decide, we compared key features of the 2016 version of Microsoft's productivity suite to Apache OpenOffice 4.1 and LibreOffice 5.1.

Both open-source suites offer tools with the same names — Writer (word processing), Calc (spreadsheets), and Impress (slide presentations) — to compete with Microsoft's equivalent products — Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. The open-source options also include "Base," a database similar to Microsoft Access; a tool called "Draw" that's similar to Microsoft Visio; a chart-creation module called "Charts"; and an equation editor called "Math." Although some desktop versions of Microsoft Office don't include the desktop-publishing application Publisher, all now offer OneNote, a note-taking and -sharing tool. Office 2016 also includes Outlook. Neither of the open-source alternatives provides an email or calendaring tool or an analogue for OneNote.

For the purposes of this article, we'll focus on word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation tools.

Open Source Versus Commercial

Before we look at specific features of the competing suites, it may be helpful to take a step back. Let's compare the philosophical differences between the three packages and how those differences might affect how you purchase and use the suites.

Commercially licensed software like Microsoft Office is developed by a single vendor. Its sales help fund product development, testing, marketing, salaries, and shareholder dividends. In contrast, open-source software is developed collaboratively, often by volunteers, and made available for free. Anyone who wishes to use, redistribute, adapt, or improve the code can do so without permission or payment of any kind.

The open-source philosophy is about more than software. It is born out of a deep distrust of large corporations, an enthusiasm for individual innovation, and a belief that community action is effective in solving problems. Not surprisingly, it can attract loyal adherents who are committed to sharing information and building better software.

On the other hand, some consumers are more comfortable with a for-profit model they feel rewards and incentivizes ingenuity. If you have deep a conviction in either direction, it's not likely we'll change your mind. For the rest of you, each model has tangible advantages and disadvantages that we'll look at in closer detail.

First, the cost: Open-source applications often cost nothing. OpenOffice and LibreOffice are both free. Microsoft Office 2016, in contrast, costs from $149.99 to $399.99, depending on the edition, and is available to eligible U.S.-based nonprofits and libraries through TechSoup at a significant discount.

Updates to the latest-and-greatest versions of the open-source applications are also free, but the same is not always true for Microsoft Office users. Office 2013 users who want to upgrade to Office 2016 have to pay for the new edition, for example. However, smaller updates between major releases are free. (Note: If you currently hold a valid Office license with Software Assurance, a support-and-benefits service available to volume-licensing customers, you may be able to upgrade to newer versions released during your coverage period for free.)

Related to price, licensing is another advantage of open-source software. You don't have to worry about how many copies of LibreOffice you've installed at home or the office. There's no cost no matter how many times you download or install it. However, when you buy or receive a version of Office 2016, you may only install it on a specified number of computers within your organization — the number depends on which edition of the suite you purchase, so you'll need to keep track of exactly where it's been installed.

Another advantage of open-source code — if you're a programmer — is that you can do what you like with it. You can study OpenOffice or LibreOffice and customize it to your needs, improve it, or use the code to create something completely new and release your changes to the public. Unless you're a programmer or have one on staff, this may not be a feature you need, but for some users it's a valuable selling point. Microsoft doesn't offer anything comparable.

What Microsoft does offer is a company that has a strong incentive to create applications that it can sell. This means its features, support, and interface need to be attractive enough for users to purchase year after year. Microsoft has built a vast pool of talented developers and offers a mature platform and polished user interfaces. Also, by virtue of being the largest software provider in this space, there are hundreds of Microsoft Office experts who can help troubleshoot issues and offer tips for power users.

The mandates for open-source applications also tend to be fuzzy. Tech-savvy programmers are not always focused on the interface or user experience. Documentation can be spotty.

However, because open-source code is available to all, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are not solely dependent on their current crop of developers and corporate sponsors. Even if all those people supporting the project were to disappear, the code would still exist and other people could pick up where they left off. Commercial products tend to keep their code secret, so if the company goes under, so does the software. That said, it is unlikely Microsoft will be unable to support its Office suite anytime in the foreseeable future.

What About Office 365?

Office 365 is the online software subscription version of Microsoft Office. It offers all the tools available in the desktop version of Office 2016 and many more that are not available for download. Users simply have an account that gives them online access to their Office apps and the files created on those apps. Qualified nonprofits and libraries can get Office 365 for free or at discount, depending on which plan they choose.

It's no secret that Microsoft wants to move more people to its software as a service (SaaS) model, where upgrades and new features are automatic and customers are locked into an annual payment to use their product. Critics of Microsoft don't like the feeling of being "locked" into regular payments and worry that they'll lose control of their data. Of course, there are benefits to a Internet-based Office, namely the increased ability to share documents and access them on multiple devices.

However you feel about Office 365, this article focuses on the desktop version of Office 2016 because it's a more apples-to-apples comparison with the open-source options. As a result, many of the new features in the online version of Office 2016 will not be covered here.

Comparing Office Productivity Suites

Whether open source or commercial, how do each of the three suites compare against the others?

First, a little about the two open-source tools: OpenOffice and LibreOffice are very similar products. In fact, they were both built on the same source code. When Sun Microsystems acquired OpenOffice and was subsequently taken over by Oracle, the community split and LibreOffice was created in parallel. (The OpenOffice project has since been handed over to the Apache Foundation.) For practical purposes, users won't see much of a difference between the two tools, although it's generally believed that LibreOffice is quicker to update and offer new features.

Usability and Interface. Microsoft Office's interface is the de-facto standard for how office suites operate. That said, many past innovations in the Microsoft Office user interface were met with scorn and frustration — most notably the introduction of the "ribbon" toolbar in Office 2007. Office 2016 is similar in look and feel to the previous version, which means the ribbon is still there. Hopefully you're used to it by now. There's a new gray theme that improves visibility for some users and more charts in Excel, but for the most part Microsoft has decided that its desktop offering should stick to the basics.

However, a few new usability features stand out. If you've ever been working on a document and suddenly wanted to find more information, you can now get what you need without switching screens. You just select the text and choose Smart Lookup from the Home menu. Office 2016 also offers more targeted help. Its new Tell Me feature lets you type in a description of the feature you need and spits out links that will take you directly there. Outlook also makes it just a little easier to send a document in an email via its Recent Documents feature.

OpenOffice and LibreOffice, on the other hand, lack the ribbon toolbar and instead offer a more traditional interface — which makes them intriguing options for Office 2003's steadfast supporters. Anyone who has used Word or Excel 2003 will feel comfortable using their open-source competitors, Write and Calc, while those familiar with newer versions of Office will find them somewhat retro.

This is not to say that the open-source applications aren't also improving usability. LibreOffice has worked to simplify its menus while providing finer controls for charts and images across all of its applications.

System Requirements. OpenOffice, LibreOffice, and Microsoft Office 2016 will all work fine on most computers, but if your office machines are significantly older, slower, or less powerful than the average modern machine, you'll find OpenOffice and LibreOffice a better fit than Office 2016.

For instance, Office 2016 requires a minimum of 2 GB RAM and 3 GB of hard-disk space. In contrast, both LibreOffice and OpenOffice need just 256 MB of RAM (although both recommend 512 MB) and 1.5 GB of hard-disk space. However, both open-source options need Java installed to take advantage of certain features, most notably Base. Office 2016 requires at least Windows 7 Service Pack 1, but notes that Windows 10 offers the "best experience." LibreOffice and OpenOffice will run on older Windows versions, including XP or Vista, and OpenOffice can even run on Windows 2003.

In addition, both open-source suites will run on most Mac computers running OS X 10.8 (Mountain Lion) or higher. In order to run the new Microsoft Office on a Mac, you no longer need to subscribe to Office 365, as was required with Office 2013. You will need more memory, however — 4 GB of RAM and 6 GB of hard-disk space.

OpenOffice and LibreOffice will run on a Linux system — and Linux runs much more effectively than Windows 7 or XP on older computers. That advantage makes Linux and OpenOffice or LibreOffice a practical combination on older computers. It's especially true for older computers that require additional applications (such as those as you might find in a public computer-lab setting).

Support. If your IT team is small — or nonexistent — you can expect to need occasional support from other sources. Thanks to Microsoft's vastness, there's more support for Office than anyone could possibly take advantage of. It includes official support from Microsoft, authorized support from licensed vendors and consultants, and professional call centers. Plus there are dozens of books and countless websites offering tips and guides for modifying, configuring, and using Office software.

However, some users report difficulty getting support for Office 2016; Microsoft appears to be encouraging consumers to switch to the subscription-based Office 365. Some free resources specifically for nonprofits exist, but expect such tailored support to cost more.

Support for OpenOffice and LibreOffice is community-driven and generally free, and includes documentation projects and volunteer-led discussion forums. With these open-source projects, common issues and bugs are often addressed through updates. In general, LibreOffice's development community tends to address these issues more quickly and release updates more frequently than the OpenOffice community. Users more familiar with Microsoft's ecosystem may find this support model unfamiliar, and may feel more comfortable with training and support for Microsoft Office.

Document Sharing. In general, files created by all three suites can be read by the others, although there are caveats. In the case of Office 2016, Microsoft has established de facto file standards such as .doc and .docx for Word documents and .xls and .xlsx for Excel. If you need to share files with anyone running Office 2003 or older, you may need to convert them to older formats. Microsoft offers a free utility to do this.

Apache OpenOffice and LibreOffice, on the other hand, use open standards for their native files, but can read and write files using Microsoft's format. In fact, users can choose to automatically save files in .doc or .docx formats by default. The open-source community has invested a lot of effort in ensuring that Writer, Calc, and Impress users can share documents with Microsoft users, and has succeeded in all but a few specific cases.

If you've created Word documents that make extensive use of columns, header formats, or embedded images, the file is likely to show up in Writer with minor formatting issues. These formatting problems will have to be adjusted manually. These adjustments aren't likely to be prohibitive for a document or two, but could be time-consuming for a whole library of templates and collateral. However, both OpenOffice and LibreOffice have begun to implement better support for Microsoft file formats — for example, LibreOffice has improved its utility to import .docx files to handle more images and formatting.

Office 2016 and its open-source competitors are also incompatible when it comes to macros or spreadsheet pivot tables. All three suites do support both features (in OpenOffice and LibreOffice, pivot tables are created with a feature called Data Pilot). However, you will not be able to use macros or pivot tables created in Office 2016 with the open-source tools, or vice versa. You may also have minor issues translating charts between the suites' spreadsheet programs.

Interestingly, OpenOffice can open files that have been saved in substantially older versions of Microsoft Office than Office 2016 can. Open Space can even open some corrupted Word files that Office 2016 can't. For an IT department, it might be worth having a copy installed for that reason alone.

Finally, all three applications provide the ability to export any file as a PDF, ensuring that viewers see the document exactly as you intended.

Keep in mind, compatibility issues are only relevant if documents are being passed back and forth between people using different software. If your whole organization is using the same office tools and you don't frequently exchange documents with people outside your organization, then you don't have to worry.

Remote Access. In Office 2016, Microsoft continues the web collaboration features it introduced in Office 2010 and Office 365. Its integration with OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) makes documents portable and easy to edit on multiple devices. Office 2016 also has the ability to collaborate in real time on a desktop version of Microsoft Word or PowerPoint. To take advantage of this feature, users need to hit the Share button and direct who they want to share the document with. They also must have a shared folder in OneDrive — a Microsoft online storage service.

LibreOffice has recently ventured out into the mobile, online world. It offers mobile apps and allows users to connect to some online storage services. It has also promised an online version to rival Office 365 and Google Docs, but the release is still in a "preview" or testing phase. OpenOffice has an extension that allows users to access and save files to online storage services, but does not currently offer an online version.

Security. Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, and LibreOffice are reasonably secure as long as you follow standard security procedures. Make sure you (or your IT staff) install updates and patches as soon as they're released, and maintain firewalls, antivirus, and anti-spyware software.

The open-source community publicizes possible security issues with both open-source tools — allowing users to protect themselves and hackers to potentially exploit issues. In contrast, Microsoft keeps security issues closely guarded in an effort to prevent hackers from finding out about them.

Generally speaking, if you follow the standard precautions, all three tools are fairly safe.

Email Integration. For many people, one of the big advantages of Office 2016 is its integration with Microsoft Outlook. (Outlook provides email and calendaring features, among other things.) This integration allows you to send documents directly from Office tools. For instance, you can send a Word document in an email directly from the Word interface. You can also preview Office documents directly in Outlook.

Specific Features: A Comparison

Let's get on with it, then — ready for a head-to-head comparison of features? It turns out such a comparison is difficult, primarily because the three suites are so fundamentally similar — for years, they've been copying each other's best enhancements and innovations. Your needs must be pretty complex before you start to find one of them lacking.

Spelling and Grammar. Both Microsoft Word and LibreOffice have built-in spell-checking tools. LibreOffice's grammar-checking tool and other language tools are separate extensions. The OpenOffice community has provided a few add-ons that you could install to provide spelling and grammar checking, but they're generally less robust than Word's default options.

Conditional Formatting. All three spreadsheet packages offer conditional formatting — the ability to automatically format cells based on the properties of the data within them. However, Microsoft offers a lot more flexibility and control in this realm. On the other hand, OpenOffice and LibreOffice tend to be somewhat simpler to understand, and can export to more useful file formats.

Suite-Wide Interface. Both OpenOffice and LibreOffice provide a gateway to easily access any of the individual components, whereas Office 2016 requires users to open each application separately.

File Size. In general, the native formats of OpenOffice and LibreOffice will create smaller files than Office 2016. When saving files into Microsoft file formats, however — for example, to create files that can be opened in Word — file sizes are similar to Microsoft's. File size is less of an issue than it once was, though, because of increased hard-drive capacity, email clients allowing larger attachments, and online storage options.

HTML Production. All three tools let users create and edit files in HTML — the coding language behind the Internet. However, purists tend to favor Writer's HTML markup to Word's — though few people with knowledge of HTML use any word processing program to produce Web pages. For simple tasks, Writer's Web Wizard makes it incredibly easy to produce Web pages that incorporate HTML, PDF files, and images.

OpenOffice and LibreOffice don't offer similar native email clients. However, a number of third-party and open-source email solutions do exist that allow you to send documents via email using the office application. (Keep in mind that none of these provide the same level of integration that Microsoft Office does.)

Which Office Productivity Suite Should You Get?

Differences, features, prices — you've got all the information you need to make a decision. Still looking for a little guidance? We'll leave you with a few specific scenarios for when one package might work better than another:

Your office is happily using donated Microsoft Office licenses. Are you able to get Office 2016 for free or very little money — or even the still quite functional Office 2010? Is your staff happy with it and comfortable using it to get your work done? Then we don't see any advantage in changing for the sake of change.

Your office is happily using donated Microsoft Office 2003 licenses. In general, your organization probably should no longer be using Office 2003 — Microsoft ended support for it, along with Windows XP, on April 8, 2014. Upgrading to Office 2016 means adopting the ribbon toolbar interface, a significant change that will require a learning curve and possible training for your staff. OpenOffice and LibreOffice will be more familiar (and completely free), but you'll miss out on some advanced features and the ability to seamlessly open highly formatted documents, charts, pivot tables, and macros that current versions of Office provide. Does your staff actually need these features? Do you have a sizable repository of complex documents, spreadsheets, and presentations that you need to frequently open and edit? For instance, it may be challenging to move your accounting staff — which may in fact be creating complex spreadsheets with macros and charts — from Excel to another tool. In this case, it likely makes sense to take a careful look at what your staff is actually doing with Microsoft Office. Then you can decide whether to transition to Office 2016, or away from Microsoft Office entirely.

You have a small, technically comfortable staff philosophically aligned with open-source tools. Perhaps your staff would prefer open source over Microsoft for philosophical reasons and can live with small changes in interface and less formal support. In that case, OpenOffice and LibreOffice are viable alternatives that don't sacrifice productivity.

Your staff depends on sharing highly formatted documents or complex Excel functionality. Do you create a lot of highly formatted Word documents or pivot tables, or use a lot of macros? Do you share these files with other organizations? Then it may not make sense to move to LibreOffice or OpenOffice.

Your staff needs to share and collaborate on documents online. LibreOffice and OpenOffice don't provide online versions of their suites, or the ability for more than one person to edit documents at the same time. While many users may turn to Google Docs in addition to their office suites to approximate these functions, Microsoft can provide both through Office 365 and SharePoint.

You need email and calendaring tools. Microsoft Outlook is included in most editions of Office 2016. In contrast, LibreOffice and OpenOffice don't include an email client — although Mozilla's Thunderbird and Lightning tools provide open-source email and calendar functionality, respectively.

You need to provide basic office software on old computers. Maybe you are looking to support only basic functionality and need to use older computers — for a public computer lab, for instance. In this case, a combination of Linux and OpenOffice or LibreOffice is hard to beat.

Wrapping Up

There are strong arguments to be made for Microsoft Office and the open-source alternatives alike. All three options are solid platforms that support office productivity. For most nonprofits, the decision for any software should come down to how well it fits your organization's needs. You might consider installing two or more office suites to allow users the opportunity to find the tool that works best for them. However, for organizations that share a lot of files, you're likely better off standardizing with a single suite.

Are you happy with your existing suite? Then it's not likely to be worth the time transitioning your entire office to a new one. However, if you need to upgrade from an older version of Microsoft Office, you have three solid choices to meet your particular interests. 

Additional Resources

Dan Rivas is a managing writer for Idealware, a TechSoup partner. Aspiration's Allen Gunn DESC's Sarah Dougherty contributed to this article, is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.