Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Designed with compatibility in mind, this word processor has XML as its native document format.

Although I had met some AbiSource folks at a conference many years ago, the AbiSource project had pretty much dropped off my radar until AbiWord received an Editors' Choice award (see Linux Journal, December 2001). I decided that if my own editorial department had deemed them worthy of an award, I should see why. So I started to use AbiWord.

Now, before I get too deep into this article, let me say that I am not a word processor kind of guy. For example, I told IDG that they needed to find a new author for the Linux for Dummies Quick Reference because I refused to use Microsoft Word to do edits. Note that by this I mean MS Word and not something that reads and writes MS Word formats, as the publisher required me to use Word's built-in revision control features.

When I need to produce a document of some sort, it is usually a choice for me between Troff, HTML and Yodl. The common ingredient in these three formats is that I can use vi to create and edit the text file. In case you are wondering, I am using vi right now to write this article.

Okay, back to AbiWord. I loaded it up on my laptop and gave it a try, and the first thing I noticed was how quickly it came up. I estimate that it came up in less than two seconds, whereas StarOffice takes more like 15 seconds to open on the same machine. So the load time got my attention, but there had to be more if I was to consider it seriously as an alternative to vi.

The next area I looked at was what document formats it would import. I found the usual suspect, MS Word, and trying it on a couple of files, it seemed to happily import them. I would like to say it was perfect, but you can't even say that about different versions of MS Word. It also offered an RTF import feature, satisfying the general requirements of having to work with documents coming from the non-Linux crowd.

But, there's more. For the Linux crowd it offers DocBook and Applix Word; of the two, DocBook surprised me the most. I always thought of it as a format that would be created by a human--in other words, a vi or Emacs user.

The preceding isn't intended to be an exhaustive list of supported document formats. If your are curious, take a look at the dialog within AbiWord. There you will find other unexpected formats, such as Palm and WordPerfect. In other words, AbiWord looks like software designed by a user instead of someone with a proprietary ax to grind.

By that point, I had the necessary appreciation of AbiWord to add it to the set of tools that I use regularly. I even started using it instead of vi and Troff for writing quick pages of information and simple signs, a major change for someone who had been using Troff for this type of work for 20 years.

And then I learned even more. I'm not sure if I found this out by accident or if someone told me, but AbiWord's native document format is XML. Unlike the typical proprietary approach, (or, in at least one case, a combination of a proprietary format and a poorly supported custom but allegedly non-proprietary alternative) the AbiSource folks decided to use something that is portable.

Sure, XML can be an unknown because you can define any tags that you want, but that isn't the point. XML parsers are everywhere, a good example being the XML handling that is included in the Python library. Therefore, if you have some specific output or translation requirement, you can adjust the AbiWord native file and do with it as you need. The word compatibility comes to mind.

Does this mean vi and Troff are out of my life? Certainly not. While my use of Troff has declined over the past few years, it still has its place. And even if Troff went away, I still need a comfortable text editor for my programming tasks. So vi and probably Troff are here to stay in my life, but I see AbiWord as an important tool to add to my toolkit.

Phil Hughes is the Publisher of Linux Journal.



Phil Hughes


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Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

eckes's picture

I looked every now and then on AbiWord. I did not lately, so I took the opportunity to have a look at it again. Using "apt-get -ufm install abiword" it was done, quickly on Debian, which installed

I was curious about the DocBook comment, so I typed a simple page:

Chapter 1: The rise and fall of the Klingon Empire

Section 1: Le't talk about war

and looked at the DocBook output, whic hwas pretty ugly. Does anybody know how to write good DocBook Articles and Books in AbiWord?

Especially how I can control style/tag mapping and do some validation?

Anyway, besides this, word import worked slow, but at least it did work.

The "show paragraphs" function is pretty neat.

I agree that there are a lot of word processors out there, and that Abiord ist not the most outstanding one, but it is realy pretty fast, and if I can get DocBook to work, I might actually try it at work (on Windows :)

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

DocBook i/o is not very good with AbiWord.

I remember someone who wanted to improve this, look it up in the abi-devel mailinglist archive. (January I think)

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

AbiWord is okay, but so are most of the other Linux wordprocessor applications. In fact, it is not such a big thing that XML is the native language of this wordprocessor, all current versions of wordprocessors should have at least some support for XML if they are to be worth consideration at all. For instance, KWord(along with the other applications which form KOffice) uses XML. KWord can also do DocBook(or the filter for it is in the works). One drawback for me is the klunky look of the GTK widgets used in GNOME based applications--KOffice's KWord definitely has a more streamlined appearance. Even StarOffice looks better despite its overly Windoze like look--it also does MS Word and others. AbiWord may have a place for some people, but right now I do not think it will be center stage. It needs a face lift and more flexible and powerful features in order to stand out from other wordprocessors currently available.

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

First of all, the "klunky look of GTK" is a matter of personal taste.

I personally happen to like the appearance of GTK very much, and I don't like that of QT as much (but it's much nicer than Windows).

As for XML, I might have an outdated version of Kword and Kspread (it can't be TOO old, I have Red Hat 7.2). Neihter of their formats are XML based (I just looked at them).

Both formats of Abiword and Gnumeric are XML.

I agree that all word processors should have some support for XML. Indeed, I think that it should be their standard format.

Also, Abiword can open and save many more file formats than Kword. Ditto for Gnumeric vs KSpread. I think that this is important.

Also, Abiword/Gnumeric have several features not present in Kword/Kspread:

- I haven't managed to get Kword to underline misspelled words.

- When I've tried to produce a PDF file from my work, both Abiword and Gnumeric did a great job. Kword messed my document. Kspread produced a blank page.

- BTW, for some reason, when I produced the PDF from Kspread, somehow Kmail started (what the...?).

- Finally, support for graphs in Gnumeric is far superior to that of Kspread/Kchart.

I am sure that KOffice has many appealing features (for instance, you can import a Kpresenter document into Kword).

I am not trying to say "Koffice sucks". It certainly doesn't. KOffice is a fine product.

What I am trying to say is that several other open source projects in general, and Abiword in particular, are worth a serious look. They do have a lot to offer.

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

The gtk widgets can be made to look different in a few seconds. I personally don't like the default loook either so if you at least have gome installed, from any desktop environment run $ gnomecc and pick a theme if you have gtk themes installed, and it will write a little .gtkrc file in your /home directory and will change the look of all gtk and Gnome apps. I run kde but I also have a lot of gtk and gnome apps. There are some very nice themes which will get that awful semi-motif diamond tipped widget look out of your eyes! Cheers!

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

AbiWord has another advantage some may not know of. It has been ported to a variety of OS's including QNX.

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

I liked this article with its emphasis on users of software and connectivity

in file formats.

It reminded me of the Gnumeric spreadsheet, which also saves in XML format.

I'd like to see more articles focusing on how file formats can be used by a variety of

programs, and in particular on how emerging XML standards might be used to

lend more functionality to file formats.

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

hub's picture

Most of the free (libre) office programs use XML as a file format. Than include KOffice, GNOME Office and OpenOffice.

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

Designed with compatability in mind...

Well, considering it's an article on word processing written by a senior journalist, it wouldn't hurt to run a quick spell check, would it?

That would show that compatability isn't a word in English, while compatibility is. It comes from compatible, which is a word. Note that the slashdot-blessed compatable is a monstrosity nowhere to be found in an English dictionary.

And even if this was typed in vi, you can still hook vi to ispell, I'm sure (I use Xemacs, so I don't really know). Just a thought...

Re: ispell and 'compatability'

scott's picture

For what it is worth, ispell did not catch the error.

The variant spelling was not in the dictionary file.


Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

Anonymous's picture

Conformity, conformity, conformity. What's wrong with a little creativity in your spelling.? Are 80% of the words in "Canterbury Tales" misspelled? Personally, I prefer pre-Websterian idiosyncrasy.

Anyway, as another vi guy, I'll give AbiWord a shot.

Re: Stoking the AbiWord Fire

hub's picture

AbiWord happen to have a vi keybindings mode. It is not perfect, but die hard vi users should find something they like. Note that there is also an emacs mode.