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Word processing for everyone?

It works on most major OS platforms, but is AbiWord really that good? By Gary Krakow.
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It works on most major OS platforms and supports many languages; it’s able to read and write most documents in Microsoft Word’s .doc format, as well as twenty others; its authors claim it can do most of what Word can; and best of all it’s free. It’s been in the works for years, but is AbiWord really that good?

InsertArt(1484484)FIRST, A CONFESSION. I’ve been playing with AbiWord for quite a while now. I’m not sure just how long — two to three years or so — but I remember that when I started to pull down menus they had only promises of possibilities. For example, when you would try to open the dictionary you’d get a message that said the feature is not supported yet, so why not help write it.

That’s because AbiWord is cross-platform, open software. It is copyrighted and available for use under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL). In short, you can use it, plus if you can help writing portions of the program or can help with fixing some of the inevitable software bugs you’re encouraged to do so and share it with everyone else. That’s what AbiWord is all about.

AbiWord began during the Internet IPO craze. It was hoped that an open software office suite might help SourceGear Corporation become a player in the Linux/Open Source world and would produce a lucrative ITP. That didn’t happen. So SourceGear stopped working on the project and released the source code. Since then more than 200 people have worked on the open word processor over the years. It’s now down to a core of nearly two dozen, finally bringing the product to fruition.

From the beginning, AbiWord targeted Microsoft Word as its goal — not trying to match the popular software feature for feature, but to create a program that equaled the look and feel of Word. Plus, they wanted to bring that look and feel to a number of different platforms. (MSNBC is a Microsoft - NBC joint venture.)

AbiWord is available for Windows (Win32 for Win95 or later); Linux (Debian and RPM installs); UNIX (Source installation for Solaris, AIX, HP/UX, etc.); FreeBSD; MacOS X (XDarwin); BeOS (Intel and PowerPC) and QNX Neutrino for Intel-compatible processors. In addition there are various plug-ins for the software: AbiGimp (image manipulation for Win32 and Linux); AbiPaint (for Win32); AikSaurus (thesaurus for Win32 and Linux); Babelfish (translation software for Linux); BZ2 compression (Linux); FreeTranslation (Win32 and Linux); GDKPixbuf (images for Linux); URLDict (online dictionary for Win32 and Linux) and Wikipedia (free encyclopedia for Linux.)


In a word, it’s wonderful. In all the time I’ve been using AbiWord I’ve only had one problem. A few months ago during an incremental beta update on a Windows computer, I noticed that Abi took control of all my MS Word documents. It turns out that I didn’t look at the all those little checkboxes during the install process. One of them asked if I wanted to associate Word docs (.rtf and .doc files) with AbiWord. It took a re-install of AbiWord to give control back to MS Word.

The AbiWord install file is a lot smaller than some of the other popular processors. For example, for Win32 the file is only 4.3 MB or 5.7MB for Debian, 3.0MB RPM for Red Hat, 6.7MB for SuSE 8.0, 15MB for Linux source and FreeBSD, 13MB for OSX or 4.6MB for QNX installs.

Other than that I can report that AbiWord does just it says it does. And, that’s a good thing. I use only one-tenth of the available features in any word processor, so for me, AbiWord did exactly what I wanted it to. I’ve played with the processor in Windows (2000 and XP) plus two flavors of Linux (Lycoris and RedHat) and have encountered no problems whatsoever. I can happily report that documents saved in the .doc format in AbiWord (Linux or Win32) open with ease in Word XP, and vice versa. With the addition of some modules if you need them, AbiWord could easily become your favorite word processor.

If you use a word processor for only basic needs (writing, saving, cut and paste, etc) then AbiWord is for you. If you are constantly creating hyperlinks or adding tables and indexes then AbiWord could be for you, but you might be happier with a bigger, feature-laden program like Corel or MS Word. Despite my admiration for AbiWord I find I still need MS Word for writing and for the manipulation of this column (although I have written in AbiWord and then cut and paste into Word for further processing.)

Finally, there’s the difference in the price of these titles. A license for Word or Word Perfect costs hundreds — and you’re supposed to buy a license for each computer you have. AbiWord is free. The big guys offer more, but for a price. And if a particular feature you need isn’t available in AbiWord that just means it isn’t available yet. Get online and ask for it — or better yet, help write the solution. If you’re using an OS where Word isn’t available, you should see if AbiWord is right for you.

All in all, AbiWord 1.01 is a success. You should try it, even if you already own another word processor.

Next up for the Abi wizards is a spreadsheet and a presentation program. Compared to the available suites (including StarOffice or OpenOffice) AbiSuite would be hard to beat.