Abiword - the undemanding heavyweight

This article, like so many other things we do in life, started out as something else; and like so many other technological features, it started with frustration.

I have used the word processor Abiword for quite a few years. Not a love-hate relationship, but it could perhaps be described as a love-frustration relationship. You probably know how it is - you have a lot of good features, but there is one thing you really need which you know from somewhere else, and which you don’t have or which doesn’t work with this particular program.

But frustration points - later. First, I will tell you why I appreciate Abiword so much. I am actually writing this in Abiword - like I was using LyX for that review. It is nice to have things visible in the interface you are using as you go along.

Abiword is a truly lightweight application. A wordprocessing application in a very small package. It is available on GNU/Linux, the BSD family and Windows - the latter with the option of getting the portable version, which you can install on a USB stick and take with you. It is licensed under the GNU GPL v2 and available on the Abiword download page.
The interface is what you would expect from such a program - a top roll-down menu, and two menus with standard formatting features - open, save, print, cut, paste and the like on one and styles, font type, size, alignment, indentation et cetera on the lower one. By default, Abiword gives you a horisontal and a vertical ruler, and I usually turn it off, but I leave it on here just for you! The rulers allow for setting indentation, tabs and margins visually.

This application may be small, but it has some of the features associated with heavier applications and larger projects. All of the features I used in my university papers would have been available, had I used Abiword (I used OpenOffice instead, which is also worth a recommendation, but - another time): Footnotes, endnotes, references, autogenerated table of contents and so forth.

At the same time it should be said that I have recommended Abiword to a lot of people I would expect to find Word and OpenOffice Writer overwhelming, and most people - including me, most of the time - don’t need the additional applications in an office suite like spreadsheets, presentation software, database management et cetera. I think that Abiword, while adding good features and stability along the way, still manages to have some very clear and intuitive dialogs, making it easy to work with - as you can see from these two examples. The Preferences window is equally straightforward.

Abiword has a file type of it’s own - .abw files and .awt for templates; it works as it is supposed to, but additional document filters are available; without adding any filters, it will save to Microsoft Word .doc format, (X)HTML, RTF and PDF - but with the added filters, Abiword can be a strong tool for opening files from old applications; sometimes you are stuck with an old Works or Wordperfect file - or OpenOffice.org, for that matter. There is also a very good OpenDocument-import-export filter, and it handles .docx files quite well - not 1:1, but certainly rendering them readable.
Abiword is available in quite a few languages; I have done the Danish translation.

Also - some elegant solutions.
One of the things I quite like is the way to modify styles. Now, this may require an introduction of you are not familiar with the concept. Styling a document is a way of making a uniform overall design for a document. I believe it is inspired by/borrowed/stolen from LaTeX, which is entirely based on the concept that you shouldn’t be setting font types and sizes, you should just be able to indicate what is a heading, what is regular text, what is a quotation et cetera. If you are acquainted with the stylesheets associated with webpages, you are familiar with the principle: If something of this type turns up, this is how it should look.

The example here is Block Text, which is an increased-margin style for emphasis - what you would use to quote an author, for instance. There is a preview of how the font looks, and how the text will look in a page. In the preview pane, the larger margins are apparent. It is also apparent that this style inherits the traits of the Normal style, which means that it is exactly like Normal, except for the areas where it has been changed, which is just the margins here. A style can pretty much contain the text fetures you want - though it should be mentioned that the modified styles are limited to the document you are working on, and if you want the styles to remain, you should modify them to the extent you wish and save that document as the default template.
I find that it is useful when working on a larger text to define these things from the start. If you have particular wishes for font types and sizes, it is quickly done, since the styles are based on each other, so a font change cascades into the styles based on it.
Styling as a concept also extends to places one might not expect it; it is possible to style things like foot- and endnotes, the table of contents and lists. Abiword does have sensible defaults, though.
Considering the complexity of styles as a concept, this interface is about as easy to use as it gets.

Another example of a good interface for a potentially difficult concept is the selection of tools to use with the tables. Inserting the table is straightforward, but I particularly find that the intuitiveness of the tools to merge and split cells are good; I have simply never seen it done so clearly before.

Going back to setting up the table of contents, this function is a list autogenerated by headlines, which again are essentially lines of text defined with the style Heading, indented as appropriate with Heading 1, Heading 2 et cetera for the various levels, as the text is divided into parts, chapters, sections, subsections and so on. You can select whether you want the heading to be numbered in the text or not - in an academic paper it is nice to have it appearing numbered with sections and subsections, but in a book text, it looks off.
As shown here, the TOC has a setup menu available in the Format menu or by right-clicking the table. It allows for defining what styles should be used - and the numbering scheme as well, which is a nice detail.

Recently, it has become possible to add comments to the text, which in Abiword is called annotations. They are not as clearly seen as in other word processing applications, they are either underscored or shown with a different color, but this also means that they do not interfere with reading the text. It is certainly nice to have as a feature. Also, it is useful when several people are working on a document that it can be clear who made the note.

A somewhat curiously implemented function is the ability to insert a data field. This a way to have some metainformation available without putting it all into the interface, but it is not always completely intuitive. The fields shown here are fairly straightforward, and you may want to put metadata like the author in a template for, say, a business letter. Some people like to have a field in the header or footer with “Page X of XX pages”, which I suppose is useful if you have a list or something where it is not immediately apparent from context if a page is missing.

It is also possible to use this to create merged mailing. If you have a letter template and a CSV data file with client addresses, Abiword will merge the two and create a printable Abiword file with the letters you want, and it can be used with envelopes - I suppose that you could use a table to create shipping labels, too.

Okay, so these were features I would like to present. A lot of good and useful stuff. Unfortunately, there are also a few things I have to mention that subtract a bit from the final score. I think of them as challenges.

Templates. Okay, not actually templates, because as you see, opening a new document based on a template is fairly straightforward, but template management is a challenge. If you look into the documentation you find out that the document you have can be saved as a template by saving it as an .awt in the user’s template folder. Now, I personally think this is a bit clunky - since the folder is constant and can be determined, there is no reason there should be any confusion here - a “Save as template” dialog where one could enter a name and brief description should be sufficient.

Secondly, Text breaks between sections are clever for things like having varying headers or footers between chapters. There is, however, no visual cue in the Abiword interface as to where there is a section break; and the sections are not numbered in the status bar like the pages are. So it is anybody’s guess where a section break is in the text, and if you insert one by accident, you may have a bit of a problem. I filed a bug report/request for enhancement about this on the Abiword Bugzilla.

Third, I mentioned the function to insert data fields. And some of the names are intuitive enough - “page number” and “author name” I can manage. But a field like “Military time”? “Document coverage”? “Page reference”? I mean, I recognise the words, but a small description would be handy.

Fourth, the help function is a bit random. When you access the help file, it opens an HTML file. This is not necessarily in the default browser, so if you have an editor set as the default HTML association, it will open there instead. This is a minor gripe - what is more important is that the structure and contenct of the Abiword help file is less than intuitive,  and the content is quite mixed. The screenshots in the help files are not exactly fresh and appealing.

A final note which is mostly just something to wonder about - Abiword indicates using Times New Roman by default. But I never understood how this actually works - I do not have that font on my system! I usually change it in the template to Liberation or DejaVu - two nice fonts with good Unicode support; but this Times New Roman thing always puzzles me.

Which brings me to my original comment. I have been writing up points in an attempt to overhaul the Abiword Help function - to add some instructions and put them in usable categories. And as it was coming together, I thought it was a good opportunity to write a general introduction to Abiword.

To be fair, my old gripes with Abiword are mostly things of the past. The application was quite unstable for some time - one of my Abiword breaks - and that seems to be over. It used to be tied into some dependencies which made it quite cumbersome to install on Slackware, and that is no longer relevant.

And as for the Help files, well - maybe that really should be a community task, shouldn’t it? The programmers are able and ready, and the mailing lists are very responsive. There is no doubt that there is an active and appreciate community, which I am pleased and proud to be a part of. And so, I try to reset the Help interface - not building on the existing one if I can help it, but simply redoing it and trying to facelift it a bit.

4 thoughts on “Abiword - the undemanding heavyweight

  1. Hezy

    Another thing I like about Abiword is that it uses the standard LaTeX syntax for equations. It requires a plugin, but it is works well. OpenOffice uses a different syntax, somewhat simpler. I understand that OpenOffice developers are trying to appeal to a wider public, but in fact their syntax does not present enough advantage in simplicity, while being just different enough to cause confusion. In addition LaTeX enables very complex equations that are impossible in OpenOffice. There are plugins for LaTeX equations in OpenOffice, but they are old and difficult to install.

  2. Martin

    In Abiword,if I type a paragraph, and want to go back and type a sentence (for example purposes) in the middle somewhere, I thought it used to let me type and move the letters to the right of my typing over and over again as I typed. Today, it seems the letters to the right don’t move over, to let me type my sentence. They stay still and get eaten up by my typing, with the result I have to type the whole rest of the paragraph over.
    Is there a way to fix that?
    That might be a lousy description of my problem. Hope, of course, you understand.
    Thank you big time. Martin

  3. Andrew

    Martin, I know this is really old, but FWIW, I think your problem is that you have INSERT set. You’ve probably pressed the “Ins” key by accident. This is not an Abiword feature as such, but would be common to many applications. If it happens again, try pressing Ins again. The mode you want is called Insert. The mode you’re describing, where it eats up the text to the right, is called “overwrite”. Pressing Ins toggles between the two.

    There is more info here http://www.abisource.com/wiki/FaqWhyIsMyTextOverwrittenAsIType

  4. Pingback: Abiword

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