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February 12, 2011

LibreOffice not only free as in 'free beer,' but also as in 'freedom'

It's been more than five years that I've been writing this column every four weeks.

And every single one of them has been written using the word processing program.

Until now.

With this one I'm changing to a new program called LibreOffice.

Why am I telling you this? The program that I use makes no difference as far as what appears in the paper that you, the readers, look at.

It really only matters to me. But it could matter to you. That's why I've decided to share my opinion with you.

An "office suite" is a collection of programs that are bundled together, usually consisting of at least a word processor and a spreadsheet program. It can also include a database, a drawing program and other kinds of programs.

The most popular and well-known office suite, by far, is Microsoft Office. It's very probable that you've heard of it. It's heavily marketed, comes in a bunch of different versions, and you'll pay somewhere between $100 to more than $400 for it, depending on the version and program components it contains.

There's nothing wrong with using Microsoft Office. I use it every day. I have several vintages and versions of it on different computers.

But it's not my favorite. My favorite has always been OpenOffice, and is now changing to LibreOffice. LibreOffice is new, and has risen out of the OpenOffice project. It's what's called a "fork" in software lingo.

Why? That's easy.

Because it's free software.

Free software has two aspects. "Free" as in "free beer," and "free" as in "freedom."

LibreOffice is both. OpenOffice used to be both, but lately has become less and less free as in "freedom."

I realize that some people don't care about any of this. They use whatever they have, or whatever they're comfortable using. I can understand that. People are different.

But some people do care about issues like this.

First of all, free as in "free beer" means anyone can have it. You can just download it and install it, and you can legally use it on as many computers as you want. Hundreds, or thousands of them. No charge.

Free as in "freedom" means you can get the source code to it, and if you're enough of a programmer, change it to your heart's content, or copy it. You get to look under the hood, so to speak.

Commercial programs such as Microsoft Office have neither of these features. You have to pay for them, and you'll never see the source code. Microsoft is, like most companies, more interested in making money than making friends.

So, what does this mean in the big picture? It has to do with access to information.

An ancillary part to the idea of software freedom deals with the format that the data is stored in. With a proprietary program, and by proprietary I mean _ not "free as in freedom," the format that the data is stored in can be a proprietary format. Thus, to read the data, you have to use the proprietary program to do it. This can limit those who can understand the data to those who have purchased the program.

With a truly free program, the data format is open, as the source code to the program is open for all to see. So, theoretically, anyone can use the data.

Why would this be important? I'll make up an example to explain.

Let's say that the state of New York does a large study of its population. It gathers a bunch of information to use in determining some policy or other. All the work done to gather the information is paid for by the taxpayers of the state. The data gathered is public information.

Now, let's say that the state publishes this information, as it should.

But, the state has used a proprietary program to keep track of this data, let's call it "SuperSpreadsheet."

Many state taxpayers want to see this information, to keep the honest people in the state government honest. I know I may be going out on a limb here, but humor me.

The data, which is necessary to have to draw correct conclusions, is made available to all on a state website, but published in a file format that can only be opened and viewed by someone who has "SuperSpreadsheet."

Now, let's say SuperSpreadsheet costs $500 a copy. That's going to slow a lot of people down as far as being able to view the data.

Would this be right for the state to do?

I would say no. I think the data should be available in an open format. If it's available in an open format, anyone can understand it.

This may seem to be an extreme example, but certainly could happen. And it is happening.

That's why my "favorite" office suite is free software.

If you think you'd like to try LibreOffice, you can go to, and download it.

For free.

Bruce Endries is former systems manager at The Daily Star. He can be reached by e-mail at His columns can be found at

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