Highlights of LibreOffice 4.0
by Fabian A. Scherschel
With LibreOffice 4.0, the Document Foundation has bumped the major version number of its office suite for the first time since the project split from the OpenOffice.org code base. This version increase is more of a cultural and symbolic change than it is an indicator of major new features. Nonetheless, LibreOffice 4.0 introduces a number of functional improvements and underlying polish to the open source office package that is worth a look.
In the run-up to the release of LibreOffice 4.0, the developers re-based their code from Apache OpenOffice, most probably for the last time. The LibreOffice developers took advantage of the release of the Apache-licensed OpenOffice code to give themselves a clear licensing story for the LibreOffice code base and a jumping-off point to strike out on their own. Internally, the release of LibreOffice 4 introduces a wide range of API changes in the office suite that will set the project on a course away from OpenOffice. This separation will, in future, begin to make moving code from OpenOffice to LibreOffice infeasible. This intentional delineation seems to be the biggest reason behind the major bump in the office suite's version number. Aside from these rather abstract changes, there are, however, also tangible improvements in LibreOffice 4 that justify a closer look.
User interface improvements
One of the most end-user-visible new features is support for Firefox Personas throughout the LibreOffice suite. Mozilla, though, has since renamed and merged Personas into Firefox themes, with the Personas acting as "lightweight themes". Talking to The H, LibreOffice developer Michael Meeks said that like many of the software's improvements, this feature came about because a user, in this case a SUSE customer, wanted to make it easier to "brand" LibreOffice. Support for Firefox themes enables users to skin the background of their toolbars in LibreOffice just as they would skin their Firefox browser. This can provide some diversion in an otherwise rather dreary day at work or, as Meeks suggests, be used to make the switch to LibreOffice more bearable for new users who have been migrated from a proprietary office package such as Microsoft Word. Theming the toolbar in this way can make the interface look a bit more familiar. Granted, it is just a cosmetic change, but such things can have a surprisingly big effect in some situations.
Personas are relatively easy to install in LibreOffice 4. By navigating to the Personalisation entry in the Options dialog, users can access an interface for browsing and selecting installed themes. New themes can be added by finding them on the Personas web site and entering the URL to the theme's page in the provided dialog. After that, the new theme can be selected and de-selected with the click of a button.
Aside from the new theming option, LibreOffice 4 also includes several other improvements to its user interface. The developers have been hard at work, migrating many of the application's dialogs to a new layout toolkit based on GTK+ 3. The work is far from done however, with Meeks estimating that the developers still have approximately 400 dialogs to go before the whole office suite uses the new layout system. This GTK+ 3 work should pay off in the future as it enables the office suite to display its interface without being hardwired to use an X server; in turn, this makes both a headless version with a web interface and an eventual port to the Wayland display server possible. Support for right-to-left (RTL) languages has also progressed, mostly based on work done by committers from Saudi Arabia. RTL has been an area where LibreOffice has traditionally been lacking and the improved support is good news for large parts of the world that can now finally start using the office suite in earnest.
Image rendering has been improved throughout the whole office package, leading to sharper display, especially when rotating and cropping embedded graphics, and a new Template Manager makes the process of browsing and selecting document templates easier and more appealing. For users of Ubuntu's Unity desktop, the new version brings better integration with that desktop's menu bar, conforming to the global menu style of putting the application menus in the desktop's top panel.
Interoperability is important
LibreOffice 4 further improves interoperability with Microsoft Office products and, through the Content Management Interoperability Services (CMIS) standard, with content management systems (CMS). CMIS support allows users of LibreOffice to access and edit documents and content that is stored in enterprise CMS systems such as Alfresco, Nuxeo or Microsoft SharePoint. This is a big boon for users of enterprise installations of LibreOffice and saves them extra steps in their workflow if they prefer to edit content in the office suite.
The developers have also set up a test infrastructure to improve quality assurance for round-tripping of documents between LibreOffice and Microsoft Office. These tests, which in many cases are automated, make sure that changes to the office suite's code do not break interoperability with Microsoft Office. As Meeks estimates that around 87 per cent of the users of LibreOffice use Windows, this compatibility is important, especially as many installations of the office suite appear to operate in hybrid environments where documents that are being edited in LibreOffice might originate from Microsoft Office or might end up being opened in it later in the life cycle of the document.