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.comment: The Christmas List, or Wantin' Ain't Gettin' - page 2

Ho ho ho

  • December 6, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Linux has grown by leaps and bounds, which makes it all the more tragic that it is bereft of anything approaching a good word processor. Believe me--I'm right about this. On my hard drive at this very moment I have WordPerfect (possibly the worst word processor for any platform ever), Applixware (4.37; I just bought 5.0 but the CD is corrupted and a replacement, promised, won't be here for a few days), StarOffice (competent in many ways but a lot to load just to get to the word processor and the most maddeningly useless tutorial/help system ever cooked up, and a deceptively logicless arrangement of settings), KOffice (one day, maybe, but not now and not without a lot of UI redesign), Maxwell (a good first step, but it's not done and no one has worked on it since July 1998), AbiWord (promising but currently half-baked), and even the brand new Siag 3.4.7 (the truth of Siag's motto, "It sucks less," depends on that to which it's being compared). All of them are over-complicated and under-powered. All of them feel obligated to have yet another incompatible file format. None of them make it easy to do a lot of things that people typically use a word processor to do.

My definition of a good word processor is one in which a reasonably intelligent person can, without instruction or resort to documentation, figure out how to do anything except the most complicated stuff. In this regard, all the Linux word processors are clear off the map.

Example: Let's suppose that someone wants to write a letter of more than one page. Let's further suppose that this person wants page numbers, beginning as is the custom with the numeral 2 on the second page, in a header. For extra points, imagine that this troublesome person wants to use the header and footer of the first page to fashion some kind of letterhead. In a good word processor, this is obvious and easy. In every single Linux word processor, it's flaky and weird. (The Linux word processors all have idiosyncrasies all their own, such as KWord's unforgivable failure to overwrite highlighted text, or StarOffice's Microsoft-like insistence on autocorrecting things until you go exploring and figure out how to turn that goofy feature off.)

There have been good word processors in the history of computing. Microsoft Word 5.5 for DOS was a good word processor, and Winword 2.0 wasn't awful. There used to be a great little DOS word processor, Textra.

By far the very best word processor ever created for any platform was DeScribe, which was just superb as a native OS/2 application and very good in its detuned Windows incarnation. It was tremendously powerful, largely intuitive, and a joy to use.

If IBM really wants to do the Linux world a favor, it will track down James P. Lennane, the owner of the now-defunct DeScribe, buy the source from him, port it to Linux--it would work just fine with QT, especially with threads enabled--put together some modern filters and spruce up its native file format, and release it. I know it's sacrilege to say so, but I'd pay for a Linux-native version. I'd pay a lot. Even at a couple hundred bucks a pop, it would quickly own the serious word processing portion of the Linux desktop. Unless you've used it, you cannot believe how good DeScribe was. It's a tragedy that it's gone. Linux needs it. The source exists somewhere. It ought to be revived and ported. IBM, are you listening? Are you serious about promoting Linux? That's how you could do it. You could even GPL it, for an additional demonstration that you're with it.

(Of course, IBM could instead seek out the source for Signature, the means whereby through a joint venture IBM killed off XyQuest, maker of the quirky but beloved XyWrite. I may have the only copy of this thing that anybody ever actually bought. For collectors of terrible software it is priceless, and I plan one day to put it on eBay and thereby finance my dotage.)

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