WordPerfect 7 for Linux

by Michael Scott Shappe
  • Manufacturer: Corel Corporation (ported by Software Development Corporation)

  • E-mail: custserv2@corel.com (info@sdcorp.com)

  • URL: http://www.corel.com/ (http://www.sdcorp.com/)

  • Price: $199 US (add $19.95 US for CD_ROM)

  • Reviewer: Michael Scott Shappe

Since the push for commercial applications under Linux began, one of the flagship applications has been the “grand old man” of PC word processing, WordPerfect. Originally, Caldera had ported WordPerfect 6 to their commercial Linux distribution. This port apparently did well enough to convince Corel, the current owners of the product line, that there was a market worth their efforts. They farmed out the port to Software Development Corporation, but Corel markets the results, WordPerfect 7 for Linux, directly as well as through SDC's web site.

WordPerfect 7 for Linux, I'm pleased to say, is very good—certainly good enough for me to finally abandon Windows as a word processing environment. It has few problems (no show-stoppers) and a reasonable price tag.

Getting the Program

There are two ways to obtain the program: downloading off the Net or ordering a CD. In both cases, you get a completely functional program with all its features but only a 15-day evaluation license. I thought this was a nice compromise between the commercial nature of the program and the freely available software model the Linux community is used to. This evaluation version is entirely free if you get it off the Net; you can also pay about $30 US to have a CD shipped to you. I tend to prefer to have the disk around, so I tested both the CD and the network installation.

If you decide to keep WordPerfect, a single-user license is $199 US—about $100 US less than for current versions of WordPerfect on other platforms, including other Unix platforms. This pricing also seems to be aimed at a compromise between the two mindsets. While not willing to give the license away, Corel is interested enough in the Linux community to offer an attractively low price.

Installation

Whether you grab it off the Net or opt for the CD, installation is fairly easy, as you would expect these days. If you choose to download, you will need to do a little more work. You will also need a lot more disk space to store both the distribution and the installation, but the former can be erased or archived as soon as you're satisfied with your setup. You will need between 50 and 150MB of disk space available for the final installation, depending on the options you select.

Installing from the Net

Getting the necessary files off the Internet is just a matter of linking to the right web site. In this case, you want to go to http://www.sdcorp.com/ or http://www.corel.com/. It's a little faster to navigate SDC's web site. SDC's main page has a link for “WordPerfect for Linux” that leads to the registration and download pages for the evaluation copy. It also leads to pages that allow you to actually purchase a license or purchase the CD from one of their resellers.

Once you have the files you need (and it will take a while, even on a fast link), make a directory and unpack the files (tar xzf should do the trick for each of them). Note that, unlike most GNU packages and other software you get off the Net these days, these tar files do not create a directory for you, so be careful.

When done, you will have a number of cryptically named files and a completely obvious “Runme” file. Execute “Runme” as root, and it will walk you though the installation with either a decently thought-out graphical interface or a bearable character interface, depending on whether or not your X server is running at the time and whether root currently has permission to display. If you're running XDM with its default configuration, and log in as a regular user and use su or sudo to get root access, root will not have permission to display by default. You can either use the command:

xhost `cat hostname`

before invoking su to add the entire local host, or use this command:

xauth merge ~yourusername/.Xauthority
as root to give root access to the necessary keys. Both are kind of cheating, and you'll probably want to undo them (by using xhost - or removing /root/.Xauthority) when you're finished. Both methods are almost identical in what they let you do.

When the installation is complete, you will find that all of those cryptically named files now have .bk extensions added. The files themselves haven't changed at all, but if you find you need to reinstall or wish to change installation options, you will need to move these files back to their original names before running “Runme” again.

Installing from the CD

Installation from the CD is much simpler. Mount the CD the way you would any other CD-ROM, change to the mount directory and execute install.wp as root. This is basically the identical program to “Runme” above, except that the distribution is formatted differently. The resulting installation will be identical if the same options are selected.

Running the Program

First of all, even if you installed via the character-based interface, make sure your X server is running when you go to run the program. WordPerfect for Linux absolutely requires the X Window System to run. Most other WordPerfect for Unix distributions include a character-based version (ah, function keys), but the Linux distribution does not at this time. It hasn't been ruled out for the future; it's just not currently included. I gather they want to see how the “main” product does first, and then see what demand there is for the character-based version. I, for one, wouldn't mind having the option, but I don't fault them for their caution.

Once the program is installed, make sure you have its binary directory in your path (if you installed in /usr/wp, you want /usr/wp/wpbin/ in your path) and run xwp. You should see a splash screen within a second, a small window with two menu items shortly after that, and a large new document window a second or so later. To add a comparative note here, I found WordPerfect's start-up time to be remarkably fast compared to StarOffice.

The Good

At this point, if you've ever used any of the modern Windows or Macintosh word processors, you should be right at home. WordPerfect for Linux has all of the features of WordPerfect 7 for other platforms, including simple drawing and charting modules, spelling and grammar checking, auto-correct and spell-as-you-go highlighting, tables, mail merge, outlining, lists and style sheets. This is a complete implementation of the feature set people have come to expect in a word processor.

For all of that, somehow, the program manages to not be a complete memory hog. While typing this review, I found that the program had a resident set size of only 5.5MB, while a small daemon that runs concurrently (wpexc) took up a mere 416K—not exactly svelte, but not bloated by today's standards either. These numbers basically mean that I can run the program on my small 16MB laptop without swapping. To get comparative again: while I do not remember the exact resident set size of StarOffice, I do remember quite clearly that it swapped like crazy when handling anything more than just typing.

The secret seems in part to be that SDC has taken advantage of the Unix model and split a lot of the “under-the-hood” functionality out into separate programs. The grammar and spell checkers, for example, are each a separate binary, and so are many of the file conversion filters. Some of these can even be run independently of WordPerfect from the command line. The result is that most of the time all that needs to be in memory is the basic interface to handle commands and typing.

Ease of Use

If you need to get started quickly, WordPerfect is a definite winner. Although the default text style is not the best for a document, reformatting is simple enough that you can just start typing and worry about it later.

At any given time, the right mouse button will bring up a handy menu of common formatting commands. In addition, the paragraph the mouse pointer currently points to will always have a small button next to it. Pressing this button brings up a small window with just the paragraph formatting commands.

If you have Spell-As-You-Go (the name of the feature that highlights misspelled words) turned on, the menu that appears when you right-click over a highlighted word changes to provide suggestions for replacements. You also are given the choice to add the word to the dictionary right then or to bring up the full spell checker.

Word Processing with Style

Even the simplest word processors these days have style sheets, although they all handle them a bit differently. WordPerfect's handling falls into the middle range, in my opinion, for ease of use. What keeps it from a better rating is the sheer complexity of the underlying style-sheet model, and an interface that does not seem to have been completely thought out from the user's point of view. There are several different kinds of styles: character, paragraph and document, and several different “locations” where style sheets can reside: single document, personal style-sheet library, system library. Users have to pay very careful attention to these details, particularly if they want a single style sheet to be used in several documents (for example, the chapters of a book). In some cases, however, it's not entirely obvious how to set the options you need.

The other complication is an historical artifact of WordPerfect itself. WordPerfect is still code driven; that is, it performs stylistic changes by transparently marking up text with bracketing tags, much like HTML. It is, in fact, still possible to tell WordPerfect to show you these codes in your document—WordPerfect old-timers will be familiar with the “Reveal Codes” feature.

The window that lets you actually manipulate a style either shows you these codes to tell you which features you've selected or shows you nothing at all. To a user more familiar with Microsoft Word or StarOffice, this can be quite confusing; the more so since the user really doesn't need to know about the codes. It would have been just as useful to list which features had been set up for a given style, leaving “Reveal Codes” as an option for the power user.

To WordPerfect's credit, there is a “QuickStyle” option that simply creates a style based on the current formatting under the insertion point. So, a user could type a document, change the style of one paragraph using the normal formatting commands until satisfied, then invoke the Styles feature and select QuickStyle. After that, a Select All followed by selecting the new Style would apply the style throughout the document.

The Need for Speed

I'd like to be able to say that WordPerfect is a complete speed demon, but it's not quite. Many operations are fast, to be certain (spell-check, for example, is quite speedy), but some others seem slow, at least on my laptop (a Pentium 120, 16MB, Xfree86 and later Accelerated X LX 4.1). Just typing seemed to lag under Xfree86, although it's much improved under Accelerated X. Even under that server, however, typing is sometimes sluggish, especially when inserting into the middle of a paragraph. No characters are actually lost, but it's not quite as fast as I would expect.

I found there were certain things I could do to speed it up. Turning off Spell-As-You-Go was a big help. Also, reconfiguring the status bar at the bottom of the window to not display full position information helped by eliminating a redraw for every character.

I've also found that plugging in my laptop, rather than running off the battery, speeds things up; this is not surprising, since most portables have an automatic “slow down” mode for saving power. This, of course, is not WordPerfect's problem. Even so, word processors have been keeping up with people since long before the Pentium era, so I wouldn't necessarily expect the slight power-saving slow down to be so noticeable.

My speed problems were not entirely consistent, and I did not do a very scientific examination of exactly what was going on when the program became slow.

Even when WordPerfect is feeling sluggish, however, it's still thoroughly usable. In fact, if you are the sort of typist who has been trained not to look at the keyboard or screen while typing but rather at your source material or some other neutral point, you probably won't even notice.

Clunkers

Although I find the program mostly satisfactory, with all the features I might want and quite a few I can take or leave, I have found a few problems that I can only call “clunkers”. None of them prevent the successful use of the program as a whole, but they do make certain features difficult or impossible to use, and that, of course, detracts from the overall attractiveness of the product.

The first problem I noticed was that the on-line help system did not seem to work on my portable, although it had worked fine on another system I'd tried it on. It turned out that my locale information was set to “us” rather than C, which is the usual default. The on-line help seems to crash when faced with a locale it doesn't know about. This is arguably a case of user error, but it seems to me that the help program could simply fall back to a reasonable default rather than crashing.

The second problem I had is that the HTML export feature does not seem to work consistently. When I tried exporting this document to HTML, it worked just fine. However, when I begin by importing some (but not all) existing HTML documents, I find that I absolutely cannot export them—the file comes up blank. I've reported this problem, and hopefully it will be tracked down soon.

The Last Word

WordPerfect 7 for Linux is an excellent effort, fairly stable, reasonably fast and contains everything people have come to expect in a word processing program. It works fine in relatively low memory conditions (a rarity in commercial applications these days) and on relatively low-end hardware. In fact, from the low-end standpoint, the only thing that would make it better would be to include the character-based version, so that low-end users would not have to use the X Window System at all.

While it does have its problems, WordPerfect successfully proves that it is possible to write commercial software for a free operating system and also provides one more excellent weapon in the struggle for freedom from the Microsoft Empire. I'm pleased to say that, with WordPerfect now installed on my Linux partition, I have only two reasons to use That Other Operating System at all: Dramatica (an excellent program for working out the details of a story, which I am trying to convince Screenplay Systems to port to Linux), and Jedi Knight.

Software Development Corporation and Corel: my hat's off to you. Good work.

Michael Scott Shappe is a senior programmer for AetherWorks Corporation, a technology startup in St. Paul, MN. He has spent the last 10 years hammering on Unix systems of various stripes and addicting the unsuspecting to the Internet. You can peruse his personal web page at http://www.publiccom.com/web/mikey/ or send him e-mail at mshapp19@idt.net.
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