Ink and turtles in Writer
LibreOffice's Writer can now import and display ink annotations from DOCX and RTF documents. These can be authored in Microsoft Word when using a touch- or pen-capable device such as a convertible laptop or a Windows 8 tablet. This is a further step towards better interoperability with the proprietary office package. Native RTF math expressions are also supported, enabling LibreOffice to correctly render documents that include formulas in this format.
Another improvement that results from the desire of a single user of LibreOffice is the Logo interpreter in Writer. Michael Meeks told The H how a volunteer added the Logo capabilities so they could use the language as a teaching tool. The fact that LibreOffice was already used in their school gave them an easy way to make the language accessible as well. Thanks to these efforts, LibreOffice Writer can now interpret Logo code and display its results. This feature can be accessed by enabling the dedicated Logo toolbar from the Views ➤ Toolbars menu.
In LibreOffice 4, Writer has gained the ability to attach comments to whole text ranges, a feature that has been available in proprietary word processors for a long time. Users can now also easily define different headers and footers for the first page in a document, which has been a much requested feature as well.
Impress, Calc and Draw
Compared with the core libraries and Writer, which received the bulk of updates in LibreOffice 4, the other applications in the suite have gained mostly minor improvements. Impress now remembers the state of its sidebar pane and it will be possible to drive it with an Android app that acts as a remote control for the presentation package – the Android app is expected to be released soon. Currently this option only works with some Linux versions of LibreOffice, but support for other Linux distributions, along with the Windows and Mac OS X builds, is being worked on.
Calc introduces the ability to use XOR functions in spreadsheet calculations and also benefits from several performance-related fixes, especially when importing ODS documents. The rendering of charts has also been improved and the supported size limit on uncompressed ODF documents has increased from 2GB to 4GB. Additionally, the icon sets in the application have received some attention.
LibreOffice Draw introduces better looking previews that use supersampling and users can now draw shapes with rounded line caps, an improvement that originated from the Apache OpenOffice developers. Another improvement from Apache is the ability to use both bitmaps and vector graphics in one document.
The road ahead for LibreOffice
There doesn't seem to be a clear roadmap of what the developers have in store for the releases following LibreOffice 4.0, but extrapolations can be made from what people within the LibreOffice development community, including Michael Meeks, have stated as goals from here on out. Further API changes are certainly one thing that is planned, but another big focus seems to be on getting LibreOffice ported to both the web and Android. Both of these features are very ambitious; the web port leverages GTK+ 3's ability to use alternative rendering backends, one of which is for HTML5, while the Android port is using the native development kit to bring the core of the code to the smartphone and tablet operating system. In both cases it is likely to be some time before either offers a production-ready version of the office suite, but it does show that LibreOffice's sights are on the two major platforms for the future, the cloud and mobile.
Whatever happens to those projects, it seems certain that the LibreOffice development community is intent on leaving its OpenOffice.org roots behind with this symbolic 4.0 release. How many new features this direction will bring for end users during the rest of the LibreOffice 4.x release cycle will depend upon how much the project actually diverges from Apache OpenOffice. Where the licence is concerned, the LibreOffice developers can continue to integrate code from their competitor, while Apache OpenOffice is blocked by the MPL and LGPL from taking changes from LibreOffice.
LibreOffice 4.0 is a milestone event in the project's history. Now freed from the legacy of Sun/Oracle OpenOffice.org, it is now up to the project to show that the large community it describes in its statistics can deliver the features and enhancements fast enough to keep LibreOffice at the head of the free software office suite pack.