The multi-platform, open source word processor AbiWord was updated to
version 2.8 last week, debuting several new editing features, most notably
expanded real-time collaboration support. AbiWord's collaboration
capabilities are designed to work on top of a variety of underlying
transport mechanisms, but the project is highlighting its AbiCollab.net web service, which not
only allows peer-to-peer collaboration, but group membership and other
social networking features.
AbiWord is a standalone word processor, and thus has significantly lower
disk and memory footprints than OpenOffice.org, which bundles word
processor, spreadsheet, presenter, and several other office applications
together. In fact, it is the word processor shipped by the One Laptop Per
Child project on its modestly-powered XO laptops. It is built using GTK,
but like most modern applications runs on all Linux desktop environments.
The new release was made on October 27, for Linux, Windows and Mac OS X.
Linux users are encouraged
to get binaries through their distribution's package manager, or consult
the wiki for finding third-party packages.
What's new: vector graphics, annotations, and punctuation education
Version 2.8 introduces annotation support, with which users can attach
comments to portions of document text. The annotations are visible as
pop-ups when the cursor moves over the annotated text, and can also be
optionally displayed in the footer of each page. It also adds a flexible
multi-page view, allowing the user to see as much of his or her document as
fits on screen — not as a preview image, but as an open,
AbiWord also supports the use of SVG and WMF graphics inside a document,
and now uses the Cairo rendering engine for greatly increased quality
— on screen as well as printed. Previous releases converted SVG
images on import, resulting in quality degradation. Similarly, according
to the release notes, previous versions of AbiWord had a broken
implementation of "educating quotes" — the process to automatically convert
basic, straight "dumb quotes" into aesthetically curved "smart quotes" — but
the feature has finally been fixed for 2.8.
Import and export of other file formats has also improved, including
TeX, ODT, the S5
presentation format, and Microsoft DOCX — a project which the AbiWord
team mentored a student during this year's Google Summer of Code. The code
clean-up that included the aforementioned Cairo support also replaced the
now deprecated gnome-print printing library with the preferred GTK
In spite of its goal to remain a lean word processor, AbiWord does
support some cross-application features common to full office suites.
AbiWord documents can be embedded into other applications with the GTK
AbiWidget, and AbiWord can now embed Gnumeric spreadsheets within its own
documents. Both features received updates in this release.
Finally, the most talked-about change in 2.8 is the substantial update
to AbiWord's collaborative editing feature. Collaborative editing was
introduced in the 2.6.x code base, with the ability for two AbiWord
instances to directly connect to each other over TCP for a shared editing
session, or to connect through an XMPP server. 2.8 marks the debut of a
free web service called AbiCollab.net, which functions as a connecting
point for AbiWord sessions, and as an online document storage service.
Collaborating with AbiCollab.net
AbiCollab.net provides free user accounts that come with 25M of document
storage. In addition to storing the contents, the site retains a full
version history that can roll back the document to a previous state. It
also supports export to the AbiWord, ODT, RTF, PDF, HTML, plain text, and
DOC formats, has a tagging system intended to help users more easily find
their documents, and password-protected RSS feeds for monitoring changed
files. Users can create a blank document on the site, upload an existing
document, or activate AbiCollab.net sharing on an open document from
AbiWord's Collaborate menu.
Those features amount to an online storage service, though;
AbiCollab.net's real advantage is that it allows real-time collaborative
editing without the hassle of directly connecting two applications by IP
address. Site users can share documents with other users or make them
globally-accessible. Sharing includes a read-only option as well as full
read-write permission, on a document-by-document basis.
There are two ways to connect to other users on the site — adding
them individually as friends in traditional social networking style, and by
group. Users can set up their own groups at will, and group owners can
manage group membership and set administration privileges for members. The
site is still structured around the documents, however — there are no
status updates, profile pages, or other social elements. Preserving
privacy is also important; potential friends can only be found through
searching as a logged-in user, and every user can mark their account as
invisible to searches. Friend requests must be approved by both
The AbiCollab.net server relays changes between two users of a shared
document using its own synchronization protocol, not the HTTP connection.
Developer Martin Sevior described the protocol as very bandwidth-friendly,
and said it was akin to a distributed version control system. As useful as
it is, though, there are some limitations. AbiWord cannot simultaneously
share a document via AbiCollab.net and over a peer-to-peer (TCP or XMPP)
Sevior has said that online office suites like Google Office and Zoho are AbiCollab.net's main competition,
but he believes that integrating sharing into the local desktop application
offers a far superior work experience than that provided by an in-browser
editor. AbiWord offers advanced editing features not found in any web
application, such as control over margins, tabs, table positioning,
footnotes, outlines, and math, he said.
Also, its standard menus and dialogs offer a better user experience than
— which are often modal, block user input, and can be difficult to
activate with the mouse. Finally, he added, AbiWord can handle
significantly larger documents without suffering from performance problems,
while web browsers begin to struggle with 20 pages or more.
Some free software advocates criticized the AbiCollab.net site launch
last week because the source code to the site is not free. Sevior and
fellow developer Marc Maurer acknowledged the concern, but pointed out that
the service was new. The team would like to find a way to make the site
code free, but they also want to investigate ways to use it to raise funds
to help support further
development. Ideas include offering larger storage space for a fee and
building a custom server for business use, but all of the ideas are just
brainstorming at present.
In the meantime, it is still possible to use AbiWord to collaboratively
edit documents with a peer-to-peer TCP or XMPP connection. The application
does not know or care what network transport mechanism is being used; in
fact work is well underway to use Telepathy as yet another editing session
transport in a future release.
AbiWord has long been a solid word processing choice on the desktop,
while Google Docs and other web suites get away with offering fewer editing
and formatting features by making document sharing simple. AbiWord 2.8
with built-in real-time editing through AbiCollab.net is an attempt to do
both. Whether it will catch on to the degree that in-browser editors have is
anybody's guess, but one must not forget that AbiWord has the advantage of
being completely cross-platform, which makes it an option for every
computer, just like the web browser.
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