July 17, 2009

Open Source Word Processors Give You Lots of Free Choices, Part 1

With interest heating up around Linux on netbooks, notebooks and desktop PCs, more and more people are hunting for good word processing software that runs on Linux. Luckily, while a lot of word processing options for Linux have fallen by the wayside, new ones keep springing up, too. Meanwhile, some of the older standbys are picking up features that rival those of Microsoft Word.

The end result is a wide range of choices for Linux across several different categories of software. Whether you want to crank out your master's thesis or dash off a few quick business letters, you can take your pick from among dozens of different open source word processors, “proprietary” Linux word processors, open source desktop publishing (DTP) programs, and online offerings.

To help users sift through the choices, Linux.com is launching a series of articles about software in these four categories. For starters, we'll dive into a sampling of five different applications: OpenOffice.org Write; AbiWord; KWord; LYX, and e:doc.

Open Source vs. Proprietary Word Processors

One big advantage of open source word processors is that they're free. If you've grown accustomed to Windows PCs, you've probably been paying for the Windows OS, along with MS Word and other proprietary applications from Microsoft and its partners. But if you go with an open source program like OpenOffice.org Write or AbiWord, you won't shell out a nickle.

Many--but not all--open source word processor run not just on Linux, but on other OS. So if you're shifting between a Linux netbook and a Windows desktop machine, you might be able to install the same program on both.

Open source word processors carry other pluses, too. Since they're typically built by communities of open source developers, bug fixes and new features are perpetually under way as labors of love. Because the open source model is so flexible, developers can tailor word processing software to special purposes, such as structured academic papers or graphics-intensive newsletters.

OpenOffice.org Write

OS Platforms: Linux and Windows.

If you're seeking a smooth learning curve from MS Word, OpenOffice.org Write--a program originally developed from the same source code as the proprietary StarOffice--could be what you want. Though not identical, the user interface to Write is quite similar to Word--or at least, to Word as it existed before Microsoft's lamentable adoption of the "ribbon interface."

For example, at the top of Write's screen, you'll see familiar menus like file, edit, format, and help. The tools menu includes a word counter and spell checker. Bolding, underlining and centering text can all be quickly accomplished through a toolbar, in much the same way as in Word. You can create macros for Write. You can also use old DOS-style shortcuts, such as "control C" for "cut."

Some features in Write, such as auto-correct, can be annoying in their hyperactivity. Auto-correct can be turned off through the format menu, although you might have to access help to figure out how.

Version 3.1, the most recent release of Write, adds niceties such as new toolbar buttons for increasing or decreasing font sizes and the ability to add a grammar checker through an extension. Overlining of text is now supported, along with the previously supported underlining.


OS Platforms: Linux, most other Unix systems, Microsoft Windows 95, 98 and ME; MacOS X (native port), QNX Neutrino 6.2

AbiWord is another full-featured open source word processor with an interface similar to Word. Part of a larger project called AbiSource, which was originally started by SourceGear Corp., AbiWord stands out on the basis of its underlying goal to run on just about any OS with a minimum of porting.

After SourceGear released the AbiWord source code, a developer community quickly formed around the word processor, producing five major releases from 2002 through the present.

Widely used by GNOME developers, AbiWord is generally regarded as much faster than either Write or Word, especially if you're already running GNOME and its GTK+ libraries.

AbiWord is also seeing use on netbooks, since it's much lighter (at around 10MB) than Write (at around 22 MB, even without any of its many extensions). AbiWord, though, doesn't include some of the features that can be found in Write, such as built-in drawing.

The latest release, version 2.6.5, adds AbiWord's first iteration of an Office Open XML, plus an improved export filter for LATEX, a macro-based document preparation system used in word processors such as LYX for consistent formatting.

Developers have also fixed crashes in AbiWord's front end which used to happen when you overwrote a file or inserted a symbol. At this writing, 2.6.5 isn't yet available for Windows 95, 98, or ME, so users of those platforms will need to stick with 2.4.6.


OS Platforms: Linux and other "Unix-like" OS, with an edition for Microsoft Windows currently in alpha

KWord, a lightweight utility in the KDE Project's KOffice office suite, is meant for use in both desktop publishing and ordinary text editing. The software uses frames as a way of achieving complex graphical layouts relatively easily.

The frames can incorporate text, graphics, and embedded objects, and you can place them anywhere on the page. Text is able to "flow through" the frames due to the software's ability to link frames together. A key idea behind the frames is that images wrapped inside the frames are simpler to rotate, scale, and skew.

The frames don't necessarily need to be square-shaped. If you insert a smiley, for instance, the frame will adjust to a rectangular shape. The text will then run around the smiley.

Other features include document revisions; a print preview dialog which shows all pages; and a What You See is What You Get (WYSIWYG) editor for paragraph styles, character styles, and other high-end formatting and markup options.

KWord was first created in 1998. By the year 2000, its codebase was not well maintained. But new maintainers joined in during 2001, and as of now, the program is still being actively developed.

Over the years, KWord has also become know for its abundant export filters to various formats. Traditionally, KWord has gotten drubbed for running only on Linux and other Unix systems. But a Microsoft Windows version is now in alpha.


OS Platforms: Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X.

Another specialized word processor, LYX is strongly geared to mathematical content, as well as to highly structured documents with lots of cross-references, such as theses, academic articles, and books. But it can also be used for less formal tracts like business letters.

The software combines a graphical user interface (GUI) with support for both LATEX, and TEX, the typesetting language upon which LATEX is based. An

On its own Web site, LYX.org cites several advantages to LYX, including, "The printed output is truly typeset, giving nicer output," and, "Encourages structured thinking with putting in the section and subsection when one starts writing."

But some disadvantages are acknowledged, too, such as, "A longer learning curve once you move beyond the basics," and "The position of word in the printed document is not the same as on the screen." Also, exchange with MS Word can be tough, unless you use a conversion tool for OpenOffice, and then convert from OpenOffice.org to MS Word.


OS Platforms: Linux, several other Unix flavors, Microsoft Windows, MacOS, BeOS.

e:doc, on the other hand, is one of the many Linux word processing programs that hasn't moved forward in many years. e:doc was initially devised to provide users of SGML mark-up language with a WYSIWYG environment for creating technical, scientific, and other large text documents.The original project goals combined multiplatform operability with support for structured documents through LATEX.

Unlike a lot of the other earlier open source word processing efforts, e-doc is still readily available for download. The download site hasn't been updated, however, since the year 2000, with the release of version 0.1.2. At that point, the developers planned to follow up with a revision that would add nested lists and nested environment tags.

Then as now, in order to run e-doc 0.1.2 on any of the supported OS platforms, you needed to have PERL/TK-Version 800.020 or higher installed on your system.

The Next Time Around

In the next installment of this series, we'll take a look at five additional open source word processing programs: Flwriter; Ted; EZ; Pathetic Writer (PW); and WordGrinder.

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