A first look at AbiWord 3

Marco Fioretti takes a look at AbiWord 3.0, an open source word processor. Find out why he believes you should give it a try as soon as you can.


AbiWord is an open source word processor, whose version 3.0.0 was released in October 2013. After downloading and compiling it from source, as explained in my previous post on TechRepublic, I played with the program a bit to see what it looks like.

First, let me explain what AbiWord does not do. AbiWord is not a whole office suite and, unlike Apache OpenOffice, LibreOffice, or Calligra, AbiWord does not use the open, international standard called OpenDocument Format (ODF) as its native file format.

Consequently, if you really need the same look and feel as other word processors, or things like common macros, for your slideshows and spreadsheet software, AbiWord isn't for you. The other issue may be more substantial. If you must co-edit complex documents with users of the other office suites I mentioned, you'll likely have problems, even if you're all using free/open source software.

Taking all of this into account, there are still good reasons to use AbiWord -- and from what I saw, they remain all valid for version 3. Besides being multi-platform, AbiWord has a clean interface (Figure A) and takes much less space on your drive than its competitors, even if it does need several shared libraries to actually work. 

Figure A

Figure A

AbiWord 3.0 has a clean interface.

The binary you see in the screenshot is just over 22 KB. If that's still too big, you can make it even smaller by recompiling the sources as I did but selecting less options. Above all, AbiWord 3.0 is sensibly faster than those other programs, both at start up and during normal usage, and even on low-end computers.

Speaking of file formats

The degree of support varies greatly from format to format, but AbiWord (with the right plug-ins) has many options to import and export your documents (Figure B), from ODF text to relatively niche formats as MIF or almost forgotten ones like WML. 

Figure B

Figure B

AbiWord output formats.

The HTML export filter (the result and source are shown in Figure C) seems to produce smaller, much cleaner code than OpenOffice or LibreOffice.

Figure C

Figure C

The HTML export filter.

The AbiWord default file format, with the .abw extension, is the plain XML text that you can see in Figure D. Pictures are MIME-encoded in the same file instead of staying in a dedicated subfolder of one archive as it happens with ODF. However, the format is still "plain text" enough that one may generate or process AbiWord files automatically, in all the ways that are possible with ODF

Figure D

Figure D

AbiWord default file format.

Plug-ins for AbiWord

A quick look at the screenshots should be enough to prove that AbiWord has all the basic functions a word processor needs, so let me point out something else: AbiWord can do a lot of more interesting things through its many plug-ins. Just remember that not all of them will work, or work in the same way, on all the versions of Linux and other systems on which you may install AbiWord. My personal favorites include:

Figure E

Figure E

A plug-in for AbiWord.

RDF and AbiWord

AbiWord 3 has a simple revision system (Figure F), support for collaborative editing with your IM contacts, and basic support for the Resource Description Framework (RDF). The RDF system helps format and embed data inside files, in such a way that software applications can recognize and reuse their structure and meaning. Adding contact information in RDF format to names of people in a document, for example, would allow any RDF-aware software to pop up a window that says, "This is Mr. Smith: click here to email him, here to call him via Skype, or here to import him in your address book," whenever you place the cursor over those names. To know more about RDF and how to use it in AbiWord, read the RDF AbiWiki.

Final thoughts

I have to say that the specific instance of AbiWord 3.0.0 that I compiled myself and used on my Fedora 17 computer to write this post isn't ready for general usage. It dumped core when cutting and pasting a paragraph (but only one, curiously) from one place to another. It flickered when moving the cursor around, cancelled text with the arrow and DEL keys, and even the revision control seemed buggy. These would be all show-stoppers if I had reviewed an official package, but don't let them discourage you.

I'm pretty sure that those are all temporary or very particular issues, from the unavoidable glitches present in the X.0.0 version of any software to compilation or configuration errors I may have made. It may even be that Fedora 17, or more exactly some of its system libraries, is simply too old for this software. So, don't worry, and give AbiWord 3.0  a try as soon as you can, and then be sure to share your thoughts and opinions about it in the discussion thread below.