Friday, March 17, 2006

Software Soapbox - Part I - Word Processors

Word processing is among the oldest and most commonly used software groups in the computer industry. Although WordPerfect still has its adherents, and AppleWorks has improved enormously in recent years, Microsoft Word is the dominant word processing package in the industry. It's also enormously expensive: around two hundred bucks. The code is bloated: they seem to have built upon the same version for over a decade, with each release adding another "feature" that users cannot turn off. Microsoft doesn't care if its software is slow or buggy, because Bill Gates knows that people feel as though they have to buy it anyway, because they've filled software review pages with propaganda stating that other programs can't adequately interpret .doc documents, and since .doc is the most ubiquitous file format for word processing, well, you get the picture.

Word is not user friendly. I've taken courses in technical documentation and interface design, and the basic rule still holds true: the more features, the less usable. How many people can honestly say that they use all parts of Word? One of their most annoying toys is that idiot box that pops up when users begin typing: a creepy little anthropomorphic animatron jumps onto the screen, does a little dance, and says, "It looks like you're trying to do X. Can I help?" Experienced users know how to turn it off, but the beginner can waste a lot of time on this. I don't like autocorrect: when I type in a long and difficult word, as part of an academic assignment, I don't want to go back and tell it to stop autocorrecting that word. I also don't want to have to continually tell it to stop autoformatting for me. When I want a format, I'll choose that option in your handy little menubar - that, coincidentally, has nine thousand microscopic icons, ten of which I use. Oh - let's not forget that Microsoft includes a grammar checker that fouls up punctuation and makes the most horrendous stylistic suggestions possible.

Today's challenge: Open source word processing software in native code (will run without a unix shell on Windoze or OS X) that has all of the features needed, without the overkill of bigbox software. Keep in mind: I'm not discussing office software, just word processors.

The winner: AbiWord - an award-winning, full featured, small (35 MB for the full edition in Mac OS X - the download is about 10MB) and FAST word processor. Visit the AbiWord download page: they have versions available for Mac OS X (versions 10.2 and up), Windows (95 and newer) and Linux - all versions are native code.

My Take: It actually has superior features to MS Word, and can open all Word docs. It can save in Word and better formats. Take a look at a shot of the "Save As" window in the base edition for Mac OS X to see the formats. They were not kidding about the speed: it opens and operates much faster, because it uses less memory and doesn't need the fastest processor on earth to run. Windows users, take heart: you only need a 486 processor to run it. It will open massive documents from Word with no format loss: to test this, I opened my Master's thesis (about 110 pages, 309 kB) and looked through it. Not only were there zero formatting problems, it actually opened the document faster, the interface never slowed (like it does in Word when it's "Paginating"). You can look at a screenshot of the basic version of OS X here.

Features: This was the key test. Did it have usable features? Did it have the requirements we've grown to expect in a streamlined word processor? Yes. It actually has better dictionary functions than Word, and has the added benefit of wikipedia access. You can open the "styles" window to sit beside your document awaiting your command. Best of all: it didn't have unneccesary accoutrements. AbiWord has tons of plugins available for users who want to add features that they want. This was the kicker: they provide a baseline model that has all basic features, and users can add features that they want. They do not force us to clutter our menus with things we don't need. It is fully customizable: the list of plugins was incredible, and they all integrate without problems; furthermore, even with every add-in possible, the program is still smoother and faster than Word. A shot of the basic tool menu, and a shot of the basic style box, can be found here.

Quick Ratings Comparison: On a scale of one to five, with five being best:

Size & Speed: AbiWord: 5 MSWord: 2
Price: 5 (FREE!)     1
Interface: 4.5      3
Customization: 4.5      2.5
Stability: 4      3.5
Ease of use: 5      2
Support: 3.5 (but free)    3.5 (and you pay for it)
Overall Average: 4.5      2.5
AbiWord is definitely high on my recommendation list. You can't beat the price, the speed, or the accessibility. Of course, if you like bloated, overcomplicated word processing software, then by all means pay Microsoft a few hundred bucks.

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