Open Source word processors fall short of the mark

By   |  April 5, 2001

First and foremost I am a journalist and while I can appreciate the level of development that goes into producing an “office suite”, it continues to amaze me that the combined strength of the open source development community is seemingly unable to come up with a word processor that meets even the most basic of requirements. Simply put, in my line of work I need a word processor with a spellchecker over which I have some sort of control and a built in word counter. There are many other features that are great to have at your fingertips, but very few of them make up for the lack of either of these two features.

Before the emacs and vi and other console users jump to the defence of their respective favourites let me say this: While I appreciate the power of the Linux command line and I love tinkering with the internals as much as the next user, when it come to the daily tasks a good graphical interface makes a world of difference. After all, I am not a programmer. Nor am I network administrator. I operate in a world of images and text and the production of these entities and being able to see, and count them, in a form similar to the printed form makes sense. Which brings us to the topic at hand: the good and bad of X-based word processors.

There are a number of options when it comes to word processing for users of GUIs on open source platforms. If you’re a user of KDE there are basic tools such as Text Editor, a slightly improved version of Notepad for Windows, or Advanced Editor, a better looking but equally basic editor good only for writing HTML as far as I can tell. Likewise, on Gnome there are things such as Gedit, which is just as impressive looking but severely lacking in features.

Moving up the ladder Linux users can choose from a varied array including KWord – part of the KOffice suite –, AbiWord and StarOffice. At the top of this pile has to be KWord. Much hyped and long-awaited, KWord is very attractive and has practically every imaginable feature. Notably, however, it doesn?t have a word count feature. While estimating a word count is not all that hard, having to do it every few minutes is frustrating. Particularly if you are trying to produce copy of a specific length.

The other failing of KWord, which may be unfair considering the latest version number is 0.8 – is the application’s instability. There can hardly be anything more frustrating than writing up a couple of hundred words, changing the font size and immediately losing everything as the program crashes.

Probably my favourite processor a the moment is AbiWord. Currently I am using version 0.7.13 and, despite being a relatively early release, is very stable. On the plus side, AbiWord has a functional word count feature in the “tools” menu and, although I would prefer it to be placed in the status bar, it is adequate for my needs. Also, AbiWord apparently has a spelling checker. The documentation says that AbiWord uses the iSpell dictionaries and although I have these working with other applications, notably KWord, I have so far failed to get them to work with AbiWord. I have heard that AbiWord uses its own version of iSpell but there doesn’t seem to be any documentation to confirm this.

Which brings us to StarOffice. StarOffice is probably the best know of office suites catering for the Linux market but frankly it frustrates me no end. After much fiddling with the StarOffice 5.2 installation I already have, I have a usable word processor that has both a word count and a spellchecker. Which ought to make me happy, but I find staroffice cumbersome to use and at times frustratingly slow. Steadily I have been removing most of the excess applications that I never use in an effort to trim StarOffice down but I still find it labour intensive and not really worth the time.

Of the three applications, AbiWord is by far my favourite. It has most of the basic features I desire and together with a working spellchecker would be a killer application in my eyes. I don’t need the sophistication of KWord and its instability makes me very cautions of committing anything vital to its pages. I may still use it to check my spelling until I get the AbiWord spellchecker working but when that day comes, I will be lost to kword forever. StarOffice still holds some promise for me but it has far too many features for my needs.

If you disagree, have a favourite word processor or have tips on how to get my AbiWord spellcheck to work, email me at alastair@tectonic.co.za.

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