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The StartX Files: An AbiWord to the Wise - page 2

Wouldn't You Like to Be a Pepper, Too?

  • July 2, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

Looking at the AbiWord 0.7.14 release for Linux, you'd have to be pretty out of it not to see the interface's similarity to Word. Built with the GTK libraries, AbiWord molds very well into the GNOME 1.4 interface on which I tested it. (It also worked well on the KDE2 environment, though there were some screen refresh problems in the left-margin ruler.)

AbiWord does not just reside on Linux. Versions are available for Windows, Linux/PPC, BeOS, QNX, FreeBSD, and NetBSD. The Linux for Intel offerings are nice and diverse, too, with RPMs for old and new Red Hat and SuSE installations, DEBs, TGZs for Slackware, tarballs, and SLP packages for Stampede.

This level of detail shows up throughout the application. There are features missing from AbiWord (some of them that I believe are fundamental) but only once did I see evidence of this in the interface itself. Besides this one glitch, the menus and toolbars were seamless in form and functionality.

Oh, look, here's a soapbox. Since the whole thing's built with GTK, then of course there is no anti-aliasing in sight, so on-screen fonts in AbiWord are the usual Linux fun-fest of jagged edges. If I seem embittered about this, you'd be correct. The lack of anti-alias support in this area of open source development is just one more glaring example that proprietary developers can point too and say "See? They can't even manage that." I realize this is a point of view that does not play well in Open Source Land, but if AbiWord (and any other application still displaying jagged fonts onscreen) wants to be taken seriously by paying customers (whom I'd like to think most developers would like to know more of) then this needs to be fixed as soon as possible.

Soapbox not withstanding, AbiWord has some font problems apart from the inheritance of Linux's font issues. Most glaring was the program's complete crash whenever I tried to apply color to any passage of text. This is that glitch I was talking about earlier. Now, in fairness, the version number does indicate a pre-production product, and if this is the only glitch to be found (and for me it was), then AbiWord can be forgiven the slip-up.

Printer support was seamless with the printer queues I had set up, and color support was available, too.

Overall, the tools presented in the two main toolbars were the usual gamut of word processing tools. There was even an Extra toolbar where applied font features like strikethrough and line spacing and leading buttons resided. I missed the ability to customize the toolbars, but only a little bit.

There's been a debate recently about that elusive moving target known as the "10 percent of features" actually used by Microsoft Word users. I certainly have my opinions on the subject, but I am pleased to report that a fair number of them are (or will be) available in AbiWord. Among these features were spell check, list formatting, column creation, special field insertion, and image insertion.

Of these, I think image insertion needs a bit more help, since you can only insert aniline images, and only .png, .bmp, and .svg formatted-images at that. Hey, I'm all for the GIF boycott, but if you're going to let bitmaps in, why not GIFs and JPEGs?

Autotext insertion was available, too, though there was no way to customize the passages. Style formatting is on the menu, but according to the message dialog box that pops up, it is not available yet. Tab management is in place, and works pretty well.

What leaped out at me as a fundamental feature that needs to be added was table creation. There was simply nothing along these lines, which is unfortunate. I hope AbiWord adds this functionality soon. Also on my wish list is indexing and table of contents creation and revision marks. There's no grammar checker or thesaurus, either, but it'll be cold day in you-know-where before I'll wish for those.

One feature that AbiWord has that Word will never have is the ability to emulate the vi and Emacs keyboards, making it a nice migration point for those of you who are text editor jockeys.

An area where AbiWord really shines is file compatibility: all sorts of open and common file formats are used by this application. Even the AbiWord native format (.abw) is XML-based, so could easily be picked up by other applications' filters, should their developers put forth a little effort. Until then, rich text format documents can be opened, as well as: .rft, .txt, utfs, .html, .wml, .dbk, and Word's .doc. The DocBook functionality made me giddy, and you can save files in that format, as well. You can save in all of these formats I've listed, save the .doc format. But what really filled me with glee is the fact that you can also save documents in LaTeX format and PalmPilot .pdb format, giving you a lot of mobility for your words.

And speaking of mobility, recall that I mentioned HTML formatting. AbiWord does a nice job of creating simple Web pages without (thank the Diety of your choice) all of that extra nonsense Word shoves into its HTML documents.

AbiWord is a word processor that in a few respects looks it 0.7.14 version-age. And there's no getting around it, these shortcomings will need to be fixed before version 1.0. But there are a lot of areas where AbiWord has positioned itself very well against the product it is emulating. I look forward to seeing more out of this strong open source project.

Available from: http://www.abisource.com
Version reviewed: 0.7.14 for Linux/Intel
License: GNU General Public License
Cost: Free to download as binary or source

Next week in the Word to the Wise II series: a look at Applixword.

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