Stoking the AbiWord Fire

by Phil Hughes

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.

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