Analysis A senior bod behind LibreOffice says the open-source suite’s spreadsheet app lags behind much-nippier rival Microsoft Excel – but the hardware acceleration announced this month should close that gap.

And that acceleration could give the freely available productivity suite a leg up on tablets, smartphones and other mobile gadgets, too.

As reported earlier this month, LibreOffice will be updated to hook into AMD’s HSA technology: this grants graphics chips access to memory allocated to applications, allowing the hardware to easily and rapidly crunch through program data while the system’s general-purpose processors work on other things.

Ultimately, HSA-aware software should run faster, provided suitable silicon is present, by offloading work onto the graphics processor, which may otherwise be sitting mostly idle.

Last week, LibreOffice maker the Document Foundation admitted AMD to its ranks of advisory board members; other bedfellows include Intel, Red Hat, SuSE and Google. Version 4.2 of the suite, due out in February next year, should support the GPU-powered acceleration thanks to contributions from AMD engineers and others.

“Spreadsheet has traditionally been pretty weak in LibreOffice from a performance and memory perspective. We want to fix that and make it really good,” Document Foundation board member, SuSE staffer and Linux desktop architect Michael Meeks told The Reg.

“We have had a performance gap with Microsoft in the past and we are eager to close that.

“People build spreadsheets to crunch data to the point of boredom – bigger and bigger and slower and slower. We can make a tool that’s bigger and let them crunch more data in rich ways.”

Once on a par with Excel, at least in terms of speed and memory use, LibreOffice can hope to attract that hard-to-catch beast: the desktop spreadsheet power user, traditionally a Microsoft Office animal. The open-source suite’s spreadsheet app is undergoing “huge structural changes”, we’re told, with code rewritten and with systematic unit testing.

“That should put us back in the spreadsheet game in my view,” Meeks reckoned.

But isn’t the spreadsheet war over, and didn’t Microsoft win with Excel? “There are loads of ways to put us back in the spreadsheet game, in my view,” said Meeks.

One such way, perhaps, is getting the gear onto smaller devices, such as tablets, whose popularity is mushrooming.

The aforementioned hardware acceleration could give heavyweight LibreOffice an edge on trendy handheld gear as well as boring old PCs: a coalition of tech firms including AMD, ARM, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Samsung are part of the non-profit HSA Foundation, which is working on an open specification for the GPU-CPU sharing technology on a wide-range of fondleslabs and other systems.

HSA-aware code is written in a new platform-independent language called HSAIL, which runs in a virtual machine and thus allows a program to comfortably target a host of compatible HSA hardware. Given the number of mobile processor designers and manufacturers in AMD’s foundation, hardware acceleration for mobile gear is on the cards.

ARM ports of LibreOffice do exist, but these are targeted at mini-beasts such as the Raspberry Pi.


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