LibreOffice 7.6 arrives: Open source stalwart is showing its maturity

What comes next, and what the end of the 7.x release series really means

LibreOffice 7.6 is the latest – and last – fresh version in the 7.x release series of the FOSS office suite. From next year, the organization is moving to a date-based release cycle.

The release notes show an impressive list of changes, and numerous fresh features, albeit relatively small ones. Headline global features are trackpad zoom in and out, document themes with import and export, and "improved font handling, especially for right-to-left scripts, CJK and other Asian alphabets". (That's Chinese, Japanese and Korean.)

Also, buried far down near the bottom, is a significant system requirement: it needs macOS 10.15 or later. So any Mac users still using Mojave, perhaps because they need certain 32-bit apps, must stay on the slower-moving "still" branch – the latest version, 7.5.5, appeared a month ago, and updates are planned until this November.

LibreOffice, formerly known as OpenOffice, before that called StarOffice, and which evolved from a German CP/M word processor called StarWriter, is the leading open source desktop office suite. StarWriter was released in 1985, so the product family is now nearly 40 years old – considerably older than Linux itself. Its history is so long that when The Reg reported that Sun was acquiring Star Division and making the product free last century, this was still a young publication, newly moved from email newsletter to website. (You can tell by how short those stories are.)

Its corporate backer, the Document Foundation, said:

LibreOffice is the only open source office suite for personal productivity which can be compared feature-by-feature with the market leader. After 12 years and five release cycles – code cleaning, code refactoring, polishing the user interface, extending to new hardware and software platforms, and optimizing interoperability with OOXML to support users – it is increasingly difficult to develop entirely new features, so most of them are refinements or improvements of existing ones.

It's a fair comment. LibreOffice, a true survivor despite multiple changes of ownership, is a living exemplar of mature software. It's only two years younger than that unnamed "market leader": Microsoft Word – or Multi-Tool Word as it was called then – came out in 1983, and Excel, originally a Mac program, appeared the same year as StarWriter.

If the developers are finding it hard to add new features – or maybe more saliently, hard to find new features to add (although see the bootnote for more on that theme) – that may be why the version numbering scheme will change next year. The next release will be in February and will be called version 2024.2.

But there are some giveaways in the announcement, we feel. When it notes the "feature-for-feature" comparison, that may well be a glance in the general direction of rival FOSS suite OnlyOffice, or even commercial-but-freeware rivals Hancom Office and WPS Office.

Of course, there were once several much higher-profile rivals to that anonymous market leader. Despite many years of vigorous competition, and the occasional lawsuit, Corel's WordPerfect Office is alive and well and still on sale. Sadly, a native Linux version of the suite never appeared. Following a cash injection from the direction of Seattle, Corel jettisoned all its Linux products, as we predicted.

(Although The Reg FOSS Desk rarely runs Windows, he really wishes he had sprung for the "Work Remote" Humble Bundle during the lockdown. We've tried evaluation versions, and WordPerfect really is an excellent and extremely fast word processor these days.)

IBM killed off SmartSuite in 2014. (We note that ISO images are still out there, and the free Fixpaks to make it as current as it will ever be still are, too. As we verified to help a reader who needed 1-2-3 on 64-bit Windows, it works fine on Windows 11, with a single exception – the online help, and there is a workaround for that.)

Partly, Smartsuite was no longer competitive against MS Office; partly, Notes had succumbed to MS Exchange, although it's still clinging to life. Exchange Server remains a killer app, and its native client, Outlook, is part of Office, intimately entwined with the rest.

Everyone who went directly mano a mano against Redmond has retired from the fray. Apple is thriving, but then, while Apple has its own productivity apps and messaging tools, there's also a native Office 365 for macOS.

Only one company is still growing its market share in the email and office suite sector: Google. Statista reckons it has just over 50 per cent; others claim as much as 69 per cent.

Google Workspace includes Gmail, which in this vulture's humble opinion remains the best webmail tool around. The Contacts and Calendar tools may not be best of breed, but they work. The Apps suite – Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Drive – are very far from the best around, but the thing is, they're good enough. Their feature list may not be the longest, but their collaboration features are extremely good, and they work on anything with a modern browser, which in turn is why ChromeBooks are thriving.

Red Hat is not telling, but we suspect that this is at least a big factor behind its decision to stop packaging LibreOffice for RHEL. A web-based suite is good enough for light use, and a Flatpak version will serve for those who need rich local functionality.

Google managed to do an end-run around Microsoft by not trying to compete on Microsoft's home ground. It found a different space. Microsoft offers the most feature-rich groupware server around, and the richest client for it. Google doesn't offer either, not at all, but it has such a good webmail client that most companies don't need one, be it local or hosted. And it does chat, too. When Microsoft acquired Skype, it got the leading cross-platform internet video- and voice-telephony client. Google doesn't offer one, but its browser-based tool is good enough. And so it goes.

And of course, for customers who are deeply wedded to the Microsoft portfolio of tools but don't need the rich local clients on all their kit, the company now has competitive web-based versions, too. And yes, they work on Linux, as does Edge.

Nobody has effectively managed to stay competitive with Microsoft's rich local business apps and its groupware servers, but the goalposts have moved. LibreOffice itself is now available in a web-based form, via Collabora Online. We really hope that the Document Foundation and Collabora are not getting tired of keeping up just yet, but the writing is on the wall for full-fat local clients.

Bootnote: The missing feature from LibreOffice Writer

For this particular writer, there remains one big item from Microsoft Word that LibreOffice still has no replacement for: Outline view. We are not the first to note that it's a wonderful tool for long-form writers.

A bare handful of modern outliners exist today, such as the new Bike, although it's macOS-only.

However, we suspect it's not a priority for Microsoft any more, either. Notably, it's missing from Word Online, and from both Android and iOS versions too. ®

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