May 10, 2002

AbiWord: 1.0 release fixes major reasons not to use it

- By Grant Gross -

I haven't played with AbiWord since the versions that came loaded with Mandrake 7.1 and 7.2. Back then, one of the problems holding back Linux on the desktop was the lack of a good word processor -- every one available had some problems. In those days, AbiWord crashed a little more than I was comfortable with, given that word-processing is a vital part of my job.
I also found that it had cut and paste issues with my usual browser, Netscape for Linux. (Although Netscape has been famous for cut and paste issues with more programs than AbiWord.) But the real no-go for me then was how AbiWord handled quotation marks and apostrophes. I write and edit in my word processor, then paste into the Slash backend for NewsForge and Linux.com. In the past, AbiWord handled quotes similarly to how Windows does -- the smart quotes that end up looking like question marks in HTML.

Before installing AbiWord 1.0, I tested out the 0.9.2 version that came with Mandrake 8.1, and it had the same problem. I remember one reader accusing me of using Microsoft Word when I didn't catch one of those question marks in a story I posted to NewsForge, and hunting down stray question marks in several HTML documents a week isn't my idea of a good time.

As a result, I switched to StarOffice and stayed with it, despite StarOffice 5.2's many quirks and annoyances. StarOffice is a word processor plus a whole lot of stuff I don't need on any regular basis, and it takes a half hour to find some features like word count. But for my basic word-processing needs -- relatively few crashes, a decent spell-checker and easy to use when you stick to word processing -- StarOffice has remained my tool of choice.

When the AbiWord team announced the official release of 1.0 this week, I figured it was high time to give AbiWord another try. After playing RPM dependencies roulette, I looked for AbiWord 1.0.1 on Ximian's software maintenance program Red Carpet. (As an aside, for Linux users not in love with installing from the command line, I highly recommend Red Carpet.) The 6MB download took a matter of seconds with my DSL connection.

Immediately after installing AbiWord 1.0.1, I noticed a working spell-checker, which was absent in the 0.9.2 version that came with Mandrake 8.1. Already, things were looking up. (Ironically, AbiWord's spell checker didn't recognize "AbiWord.") Of course, I immediately tried to paste a paragraph with quotes onto the Linux.com backend, and bingo, the quotes looked like they should. Double bonus!

In older versions, AbiWord liked to crash on me when I opened a second or third document, so that was the next test. A version of AbiWord 0.9.93 I downloaded had all kinds of problems handling multiple documents in more than one format -- sometimes a Word .doc would open, sometimes it'd crash AbiWord -- but 1.0.1 didn't seem to have that problem. I opened a Word .doc while having an AbiWord document open, played around with it, closed it, and opened it again. No problems, unlike AbiWord 0.99.3.

I then tried to open some of my old StarOffice documents in AbiWord, because a switch to AbiWord would involve a lot of referring to StarOffice documents. In 0.99.3, AbiWord freaked out trying to open StarOffice documents, crashing with a segmentation fault window popping up. In 1.0.1, AbiWord still won't open a StarOffice document, giving me a weird password prompt, and opening a blank document. But AbiWord didn't crash, an improvement over 0.99.3.

To be fair, I see no claim by the AbiWord crew that they support StarOffice documents, although it'd be nice if two of the main Linux word processors would work together. (StarOffice 5.2 doesn't appear to open AbiWord formatted documents, either.) I had no trouble pasting text from StarOffice into AbiWord or vice versa.

With no crashing that I could accomplish, the second of my main reasons for not using AbiWord has disappeared.

One disappointment: AbiWord doesn't handle cutting and pasting large chunks of text into another program. I tried to paste this 1,200-word document onto the NewsForge backend, and AbiWord couldn't handle it all. So instead of a quick ctrl-A, ctrl-C, I had to paste the press release in a handful of smaller chunks. AbiWord's 322-word 1.0 announcement pasted in one chunk, but when I doubled it, no go. I'm sure StarOffice has a clipboard limit as well, but I don't remember having found it yet -- it's certainly north of 2,500 words, instead of AbiWord's limit somewhere between 322 and 644 words.

In addition, scrolling down in AbiWord while copying text is a bit clunky, so the whole process of copying and pasting multiple sections of text can be time-consuming.

Beyond those somewhat minor problmes, AbiWord is a good, lightweight word-processing program with all the features you'd expect and none of the extras you don't need. Unlike StarOffice, a companion manual isn't recommended to get started in AbiWord. The spell-checker makes it easy to add words to the dictionary, unlike in StarOffice, and the word count option is easy to find. Those two features alone will cause me to consider switching from StarOffice and, although I've never had a situation where StarOffice's slow load time caused death or dismemberment, AbiWord does load a lot faster. (Which was a good thing in the past, considering the crashes.)

You can save a document in a number of formats, including the popular Microsoft Word, HTML, KWord, and PalmDoc. You can insert images easily and get rid of them with a mouse click. The standard search and replace function all us editors love dearly is included. All the fancier stuff that I never use, but some people might, is included: autotext, edit header and footer, adding columns, etc.

The interface is pleasant and easy to navigate. You can either get where you want through pull-down menus or through cute and easy to figure out buttons at the top of the screen. In short, AbiWord looks a lot like Microsoft Word, at least the last time I saw it. People switching from Word should have no problem adjusting to AbiWord. The only thing I don't see is that annoying change history feature in Word, which has served more as an embarrassment to Word users who send out their documents with the changes still visible. (Yes, that's happened with more than one PR firm pitching some Linux story to me.)

Without the nagging problems that plagued earlier versions of AbiWord, 1.0.1 is worth trying.
It's available for more OSes than Linux, including Windows, FreeBSD and Mac OS X. AbiWord is a no-frills word processor without all the extras that make its competitors such space and memory hogs. It's also free, unlike Microsoft Word and perhaps the new version of Sun's StarOffice.

So what's keeping me from switching to AbiWord as my full-time word processor? Nothing but inertia. If you embrace change more quickly than I do, give AbiWord 1.0.1 a try. Doubters can no longer use the excuse that the lack of a good word processor is holding back Linux on the desktop.

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