The importance of spreadsheets in an analytical setting is hard to quantify, but it's safe to say that, for most of us, it's downright essential. Since the mid-90s, and certainly for the past 15 years, spreadsheets have been equivalent to Microsoft Excel.

What Spreadsheet Software Is Out There?

Bundled in even the most basic builds of Microsoft Office, and taught as part of almost all high school and collegiate computer regimens, Microsoft Excel is the 800lb gorilla in the analysis room. Previous big-names in the spreadsheet (and office suite) world have disappeared (Lotus 1-2-3) or become heavily specialized to target specific industries (Quattro Pro, part of the WordPerfect Office suite still hanging on in Legal environments), leaving Microsoft Office, and Excel, as the big only big names. 

But that's slowly been changing due to the free offerings out there. Basic ones like Google Docs offer minimal features, but are easily accessible in the cloud. Open Office and Libre Office are free options that are installed on individual machines, and do their best to mimic the full Office experience. Given that Libre Office has been making the biggest publicity push lately, we'll focus on them.

Is Libre Office Viable?

For 90% of the work performed by a typical company, Libre Office can be used without a  problem in lieu of Microsoft Office. With its latest update, Libre Office now offers the Group Policy options IT teams are accustomed to finding with Microsoft Office, which increases the potential deployments of Libre. Libre Office also has a user community developing (often free) extensions to the suite, mimicking missing Microsoft Office features or, sometimes, increasing the Libre abilities past what Microsoft can do. Take a look at this chart for some of the major differences in the suites, and the individual programs.

Looking at Calc specifically, since we're almost all reliant on Microsoft Excel, the differences are few, but some are substantial.

  • Libre Calc allows you to view multiple sheets at the same time within one instance of the program, Excel does not. This is an example where Libre Office exceeds the capabilities of Microsoft Excel.
  • Libre Calc, along with the entire Libre Office package, has built-in compatibility with a variety of Document Management Systems (SharePoint, IBM FileNet, Domino, etc.) and legacy file formats
  • Libre Calc can only accommodate 1,024 columns, about 15 times less than is possible from Excel. When coming to grips with a data dump, this limitation hurts Libre.
Getting into the day-to-day things, however, Libre's limitations reveal themselves pretty readily. 
  • Libre Calc uses a different set of rules in creating functions/formulas, so bringing in a formula-rich Excel sheet into Calc can create issues
    • Excel doesn't always use semicolons to separate parameters. Calc uses them exclusively, so a comma in a formula can produce errors.
    • Excel allows you to leave optional parameters blank. Calc requires an input. On import, this can produce immediate errors.
    • Calc cannot handle the "INFO" or "GETPIVOTDATA" formulas from Excel, and has issues with an imported "CEILING" figure. 
  • Calc has severely limited support for PivotTables, and zero support for PivotCharts
  • Calc also has limited abilities when producing charts
  • Calc cannot support VBA macros from Excel, and Excel cannot support Calc macros
What's The Verdict?

As we've noted before, the availability of free software can be alluring in an enterprise setting, given the tremendous cost of enterprise or per-user licensing, especially for companies with thousands and tens of thousands of employees. And Libre Office is clearly targeting the corporate environment, with built-in DMS interfacing and GPO support. But it looks as if the Libre Office developers focused on the polish and not on the substance. The formula and PivotTable limitations of Calc make it very difficult to manipulate large groups of data easily. 

Some of this isn't Libre's fault. Virtually everything they've incorporated into the software, they've had to reverse engineer from Microsoft products. Regardless, the limitations exist and they are pretty damning for power users. Until the formulas can perfectly mimic those in Excel, and until the data manipulation & reporting tools are as good as, or better, than those of Excel, Libre Office is not a good choice for an analytical environment. 
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Nicholas Hamner

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2 comments so far,Add yours

  1. Thanks for the very interesting article. The statement in the verdict "But it looks as if the Libre Office developers focused on the polish and not on the substance" is simply not correct. Particularly in the recent 4.2 release almost the entire Calc core has been rewritten. This is the absolute "substance" of Calc. See here: and here
    Also, I do not see where LibreOffice's support for PrivotTables is "severely limited" compared to Excel.

  2. I understand that the core has been rewritten. The press surrounding the 4.2 release and new core is exactly what inspired the article.

    The "polish, not substance" comes from the fact that they improved on things that spreadsheet users don't often need in areas like cell formatting options and font choices, but still left severe workflow handicaps for anyone looking to move to Calc from Excel. Some may argue that LibreOffice should be able to stand alone from MS Office, but that's simply not going to happen given that suite's nearly 20 years of market dominance. LibreOffice can focus on its "substance" by creating an Office rival with zero learning curve. Adding new features and options to its programs are, by that definition, polish.

    To your second point, my PrivotTables (sic) claim was formed from my own use of MS Excel and LibreOffice 4.2 and reading other reviews. The UI is substantially different than what users are familiar with (see above), which takes away from its usability, and some of the deeper "second level" options available in MS Excel's PivotTables are not available.